Monday, November 24, 2008

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

This brilliant novel with universal resonance tells the story of three people trying to survive in a city rife with the extreme fear of desperate times, and of the sorrowing cellist who plays undaunted in their midst.

One day a shell lands in a bread line and kills twenty-two people as the cellist watches from a window in his flat. He vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the twenty-two victims. The Adagio had been re-created from a fragment after the only extant score was firebombed in the Dresden Music Library, but the fact that it had been rebuilt by a different composer into something new and worthwhile gives the cellist hope.

Meanwhile, Kenan steels himself for his weekly walk through the dangerous streets to collect water for his family on the other side of town, and Dragan, a man Kenan doesn’t know, tries to make his way towards the source of the free meal he knows is waiting. Both men are almost paralyzed with fear, uncertain when the next shot will land on the bridges or streets they must cross, unwilling to talk to their old friends of what life was once like before divisions were unleashed on their city. Then there is “Arrow,” the pseudonymous name of a gifted female sniper, who is asked to protect the cellist from a hidden shooter who is out to kill him as he plays his memorial to the victims.

In this beautiful and unforgettable novel, Steven Galloway has taken an extraordinary, imaginative leap to create a story that speaks powerfully to the dignity and generosity of the human spirit under extraordinary duress.
In my attempt to read Giller-nominated books, I am crossing another one off my list! Having not yet read all of them, and I doubt I ever will, I have to still say this... I think this book should have made the short-list. I am also not surprised it didn't. There was just something about this book that pulled me. About a very dark period in the earth's history, this is the story of people surviving the only ways that they know how.

My favourite part of this book, though, was the cellist. He has made it his mission to play the cello where a group of people were killed waiting in a breadline. Twenty-two died, so he has made it his mission to play everyday for twenty-two days. One of the characters in the book, Kenan, goes to listen to the man play and I really like how the experience is described, so I am going to quote:

None of that matters to Kenan anymore. He stares at the cellist, and feels himself relax as the music seeps into him. He watches as the cellist's hair smoothes itself out, his beard disappears. A dirty tuxedo becomes clean, shoes polished bright as mirrors. Kenan hasn't heard the cellist's tune before, but he knows it anyway, its notes familiar and full of pride, a young boy in a new coat holding his father's hand as he walks down a winter street.

The building behind the cellist repairs itself. The scars of bullets and shrapnel are covered by plaster and paint, and windows reassemble, clarify and sparkle as the sun reflects off glass. The cobblestones of the road set themselves straight. Around him people stand up taller, their faces put on weight and color. Clothes gain lost thread, brighten, smooth out their wrinkles.

This is a quote from page 209, so the book is nearing its conclusion. It goes on from there, and I just love this imagery.... but then I don't at the same time. Reading is my main hobby, but I also have a soft spot for music, and so, while I cannot relate to the circumstances, I can related to the idea. This is what music does, really. It brings hope. This novel shows one more instance of people doing horrible things to other people, but a short period of time for twenty-two days... these people have hope. The story is told from the viewpoint of three different people. It's horrible, really, what people go through. These three people are battling their own personal battles, and at the centre, their is this man and his musical tribute.

Like I said, I haven't read all of the Giller-nominated books, but I am very happy that I read this one. I can't even say I love it... I just think it is a book that will stick with me for a long time. If you get a chance to read it, I recommend that you do! It could easily be a book about a lot more than just that one period in history.

And, this is another book for the 2nd Canadian Challenge, eh?

My thanks to Random House for sending me a copy of this book!


  1. This one sounds good. I'm adding the title to my list!

  2. I thought this should have been at least shortlisted. I wonder if it wasn't because the content wasn't Canadian at all.

  3. jenclair: It was good!

    raidergirl: You have a point there, it might be because it had no Canadian content. I hate to pick books without reading all of them, you know, but I do think this book should have been shortlisted. That being said, the lack of Canadian content probably didn't really work for a Canadian award.

  4. I also thought this book was amazing (my review). So many of my favorites don't make the short lists of awards...I'm not always sure what their criteria is for choosing! I read Galloway's book way back in April, and I still think about it.

  5. Kailana.

    This book is our April reading discussion group. If you wanted to stop by and share some thoughts, we're always looking for new additions.


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