Book review: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Set during the 1990s siege of Sarajevo, this novel is a hauntingly beautiful story of survival and hope, of crushing fear and despair and the dignity and generosity of the human spirit. The Cellist of Sarajevo is the story of a people trying to survive in a war torn city, where each day brings with it the fear of imminent death.

On one of these days, a shell lands in a bread line and kills 22 people, mostly women and children. There’s nothing remarkable about this incident – the city, after all, is besieged, with unrelenting shelling and snipers the only constant. But this shell has landed right outside the cellist’s house, and as he watches the death and destruction in front of him, he vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the 22 victims.

As the cellist plays his violin, he becomes a symbol of hope for the city – gifting them with a few moments of beauty amid the horrors of the war. To ensure that the cellist is unharmed during these 22 days, a gifted female sniper “Arrow” is tasked with the responsibility of protecting him from a sniper who has been sent to kill him.

Vedran Smailovic playing in the destroyed building of the National Library in Sarajevo, 1992.

Vedran Smailovic playing in the destroyed building of the National Library in Sarajevo, 1992. (Source: Wikipedia)

The story of The Cellist of Sarajevo is based on real events – a cellist, Vedran Smailovic, did play in the streets of Sarajevo for 22 days as snipers fought each other in the buildings surrounding him. Steve Galloway uses this event to paint a portrait of a war-torn city – of buildings shelled to rubble, of people trying desperately to survive. The horrors of the war are told through the stories of a young father gathering the courage for his weekly walk to the other end of the city to get water for his family; of a middle-aged man who is trying to make his way towards the bakery where he can get one free meal; of a woman out to deliver medicines to a stranger in need. Through their stories, Galloway shows us the real cost of war: the crushing of the human spirit, and also the resilience that one act of defiance and bravery can bring.

The Cellist of Sarajevo moved me in a way I didn’t quite expect. I have read a lot of books on World War II and myriad stories of Holocaust survivors. I’ve read books set in Palestine that highlight the plight of the people living in the Ghaza Strip. But where I was able to maintain some distance from those horrors, this book breached all my defences.

A city turning upon itself; neighbours fighting one another on ethnic and religious lines – the book doesn’t really speak to this, but nevertheless, this book made me think. The young father risking his life to get water from the well…the man scrounging a meal for himself so he isn’t a burden on his sister’s family…the young girl with stars in her eyes who was, instead, forced to pick up a gun and defend the city…their stories may be fictional, but somewhere, there are people for whom this was – and is still – a reality. By putting the reader right in the middle of these events, without any commentary on the siege itself, or on the reasons, it’s like seeing an alternate reality that may be playing out anywhere in the world.

Especially when I think of the times we live in and the escalating conflicts currently playing out around the world. As I read the book, I wondered if I would wake up one day and find my world turned to rubble. And I thought of the cellist, and of Vedran Smailovic, who played his cello in ruined buildings, often under the threat of snipers, before he managed to leave Sarajevo in the second year of the siege; and of the members of the Sarajevo String Quartet, which played on throughout the siege. I marvel at their courage and bravery, and I wonder, would I be that brave? Or would I crumble under the weight of a world turned on its head?

I think The Cellist of Sarajevo is an excellent addition to the cannon of war-related books.

Buy The Cellist of Sarajevo on Amazon.

Posted in Book reviews.

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  1. Oh this sounds like a must-read. Loved your review. You paint such a poignant picture of the war through the book. Some writing does breach your defences no matter how many other books you’ve read on the same topic.

    • It is a must read! The way it’s written just puts you in the shoes of the people struggling to survive. And the impact war has on the way you think and behave. It’s an excellent read.

  2. Gosh, that sounded like an amazing book! Somehow I’ve never had the guts to pick up WW books. I know many of them are life-changing but what can I say…just too chicken-hearted!

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