As I began reading The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway(2008), it seemed so familiar, but I couldn’t place why. I finally figured it out: it reads like a dystopian novel, where people are struggling to survive in an oppressive war environment.
The characters in the book struggle just to get the basic necessities of life, their freedoms have been curtailed, they dream of life in the “good old days,” and snipers wait on the hills, regularly killing civilians as they walk across the street. There is little political explanation, and the reader of the novel feels a bit troubled by the pointlessness of the environment that has been created. We share in the characters’ dismay at the world and ask “why?”.
But of course, Galloway’s novel is not a dystopian fiction but fiction based on a real situation. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a novel of the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted for almost four years from 1992 until 1996. Although Galloway’s novel is a fiction, with a compressed storyline (we never learn in the text when during the siege it takes place, but it’s clear it’s been going on for a while), invented characters, and made-up scenarios, the facts of the siege are reality, and some characters are inspired by real people. Each time I recalled the reality of the recent history this novel describes, the book became all the more shocking and painful to read.
Galloway was able to give it the dystopian feel of “why” by neglecting to explain the reasons behind the war: possibly, this senseless siege really didn’t have an explainable purpose. But he also wrote deftly in the first person. I often find I despise reading in the first person, because it sounds so affected. In this case, I did not notice it: the story flowed naturally as each character lived their lives.
The story is told through the perspective of four residents of Sarajevo. First, there is Arrow, an orphaned young woman turned sniper for the Sarajevan army. She began my favorite person in the novel, maybe because her conflicted feelings about her job gave her depth I could appreciate. Then, there is Kenan, a middle-aged man entering the streets to get water for his family and then Dragan, an older man headed to the bakery for bread, alone in Sarajevo since his wife and children fled before the siege began. These two struggled to make sense of their new daily reality, and the poignancy of their question “why” struck me powerfully. How will life ever be the same for them? Finally, there is a cellist (who was based on a real person) who has decided to play a moving song in the streets for 22 days in honor of the 22 people who died in a shell attack as they waited to buy food. The story is not told from his perspective, beyond a brief introduction, but his talent gives hope in a seemingly hopeless world. The stories of these characters overlap in a story of frustration and hopelessness, as well as a touch of beauty and joy in the midst of a world gone wrong.
I do not normally read “war novels” nor do I normally pick up violent novels. I don’t often read modern fiction either. But for some reason, Galloway’s novel was able to shock me without harming me, if that makes sense. It was emotional to be brought in to the situation and I found myself questioning the war leaders and feeling frustrated because I didn’t understand. But there was still enough of the “daily life” of the characters, whom I felt I knew by the end, that I felt almost detached from the violence. Although I knew the siege described was real and it brought me to tears at points, the fictionalized story of it gave me hope in some odd way. It taught me to treasure the moments and freedoms I have.