The Cellist of Sarajevo
Author: Steven Galloway
Publisher: Atlantic Books, London, 2008
War is madness. It takes human civilisation back to savagery. It dehumanises people and makes of them cowards that hide themselves in holes like rats or ravenous beasts that ferret out the quivering rats from their holes. It strips people of their dignity as human beings. Food and water become scarce commodities. Famine and diseases replace the zest for living. Friends become foes. Hatred spreads like a plague.
Steven Galloway’s novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, explores the theme of war through the eyes of four persons: Dragan, Kenan, Arrow and a cellist who is taken from the history of the civil war that rocked Sarajevo in the first half of the 1990s. The disintegration of the former USSR in 1991 led to a brutal civil war that caused almost a quarter of a million deaths, the worst violence in Europe since World War II.
“At four o’clock in the afternoon on 27 May 1992, during the siege of Sarajevo, several mortar shells stuck a group of people waiting to buy bread behind the market on Vase Miskina,” says Galloway in the Afterword to the novel. “Twenty-two people were killed and at least seventy were wounded. For the next twenty-two days Vedran Smailovic, a renowned local cellist, played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor at the site in honour of the dead.”
The Cellist is a motif in the novel reminding us constantly of the struggle of human civilisation against savagery, hope against despair, and stoic forbearance against mindless depredation. Dragan and Kenan are ordinary citizens who witness the war, suffer because of it in many ways and eventually learn to become more human. Arrow, a woman who has taken up that name symbolically, is a soldier who can shoot very skilfully. She will kill only the enemy soldiers and not the citizens among the opposite camps. She refuses to accept the argument of a senior officer who orders her to kill the citizens too: “There are two sides to this war, Arrow. Ours and theirs. There is no in-between.”
Is there really no in-between? There has to be, if humanity is to survive. Arrow is not a mere killer; she is a soldier who is fighting not out of hatred of the enemy but for love of her people. This is not an easy decision for Arrow. The temptation to hate is strong for any soldier, for any human being. Anyone who is not with us is against us: that’s the basic premise in any war. Hatred is not a specific feeling against specific individuals anymore. Hatred is now an abstract feeling against a whole community. War fills us with hatred.
“She didn’t have to be filled with hatred,” Arrow realises. The music of the Cellist “demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness.”
The other two characters, Kenan and Dragan, too learn the lessons. The novel is about those lessons that we have to learn if humanity is to survive if not flourish. “Because civilisation isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is... It needs to be built constantly, recreated daily.”
Arrow is a character from the real history of Sarajevo as is the Cellist. Galloway has woven a moving tale out of them and the other two imagined characters. The novel makes us sit up and reflect on the futility of war and hatred. Why can’t we be more sensible and create a happy world for all of us? Why do we peddle in hatred so much when we can find much joy in living harmoniously? Can’t we create a better world for ourselves?
There is no conventional plot in the novel. Nor is it an experiment in any novel technique. It presents us a handful of characters and their experiences as well as their self-understanding. It makes us think deeper about the human situation and its potential for goodness.