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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo came highly recommended, but I had my reservations. How could a thirty-two year old professor from Canada give any sort of justice to the Bosnian War, and do so in a mere 200 pages? The conflict is much too recent to easily dismiss any inaccuracies in the text. And it's difficult to ignore the obvious differences in growing up in Kamloops versus getting by in Sarajevo. Surely, it cannot be done. The problem was, I was imagining that Galloway's novel would be like nearly every other war novel, when in fact, The Cellist of Sarajevo breaks most of the rules of “war stories” and largely succeeds.

Galloway takes the four year siege and narrows the focus to such a tiny sliver. Although the book blurb conveys that this novel is about “four strangers,” the fourth being the titular cellist, it really centers on three. The cellist is little more than a device to tell the story and unite the others. (The “cellist” is based on a real person, Vedran Smailovic; his inclusion caused significant drama: "Out of the war, into a book and in a rage".) These three characters are so unlike any other I have encountered in a war novel that it is shocking. Two of the three are merely men walking the streets with purpose. The third is a female sniper. All three are afraid, but only the sniper is doing something about it. The two men cower behind buildings and struggle with reconciling the past with the present.

Aside from the reversed war-time gender roles, I found it interesting how the characters most crippled by fear were the ones actually moving. It was the active participant, the sniper, who hid in the shadows and rarely moved. Such focus allows the characters to rise above the war that surrounds them and become closer to universal. It is by giving such a narrow scope—a family man in search of water who cannot stand up to his cantankerous neighbor, an elderly baker who seeks invisibility, and a sharp-shooter with a vendetta—that Galloway succeeds in putting the siege of Sarajevo on paper. I wish The Cellist of Sarajevo had made a bigger impact on me, but I think had Galloway tried to craft a more epic tale of war, he would've stepped into territory that would've been too foreign. As it is, The Cellist of Sarajevo gives those of us who didn't experience the war a glimpse of what it may have been like.