The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway allows the reader to glimpse for a few days into Sarajevo as it is being besieged by the army of Republika Srpska when Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence from Yugoslavia. This was the longest siege of any capital city in history, lasting from April 1992 till February 1996.
The story follows the lives of four people. The cellist who, in the midst of bombs falling daily on the city, plays music in the street to the tribute of 22 people killed one day as they were standing in the line to buy bread. The young woman named Arrow who, before the war spent her free time shooting targets for pleasure, is now a deadly sniper. The young father, Kenan, whose trips for clean water for his family to the other side of town seem ridiculously simple, yet present him with countless opportunities of loosing his life. The old baker, Dragan, whose way to work takes him on a journey to guiet, yet profound bravery.
The cellist promised to play his music for 22 days – one for each person killed that fateful day. His task appears straightforward and benign, yet by its very act causes new dangers to arise. As the cellist plays, his music changes things; it changes the very people who come to listen every day, even in the midst of bombing. It helps them remember things as they were before, it helps them to do what they must to survive this day and the next, and it helps them hope that there will be a tomorrow when all this will be only a painful memory.
Arrow will hear the cellist play as she protects his life from an enemy’s sniper. His music will change her life and will help her make the right choices – even if they will in the end mean her own death. But life worth living does not necessarily have to be long; there are more important things then preservation of one’s existence at all costs.
Kenan will find the answer to a question that bothered him since the beginning of this war: who are the real heroes? The obvious answer seems to be – those who take up arms and fight. But what about the rest of people, those who are left to survive without active combat? Is the courage to protect one’s family and will to survive in hopeless circumstances less meaningful than that of a soldier?
Dragan will conquer his paralyzing fear of a faceless enemy. Through the courageous act of respect toward an unknown dead man he will rediscover his lost inner humanity and that will give him strength not only for himself, but for others like him. An unlikely hero who will decide to give hope to his ruined city one person at a time.
We tend to think about was as us vs. them. Perhaps at the beginning it is true. But as the conflict unfolds, the line dividing us from them becomes blurred. Not only less visible, but less definable. It becomes so much more important to regain that inner compass that points to the truth, to what really matters. Once that is in focus, one may find that loosing one’s life at the hands of former “us” is not the worst thing that can happen. Because the alternative is to loose one’s integrity and identity, which is far more damaging. That realization gives the cellist, Arrow, Kenan, and Dragan courage to live another day and hope for the return to normal.
I highly recommend the audio book version, where a cellist plays beautiful pieces of music at the beginning and end of chapters.