This was the last book I read in 2016, and perhaps needless to say it felt depressingly topical. Galloway’s novel was published in 2008 and addresses events from over twenty years ago, the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo. Galloway’s Sarajevo is bleak, cold, and lethal. Deciding whether or not to cross the street, whether to walk in a certain place: these have become life or death decisions.
The novel has its roots in the performances of Vedran Smailović who risked sniper fire to play his cello in the streets of Sarajevo. Smailović, now in Northern Ireland, is a character in the novel only insomuch as he is there playing in the streets of the besieged city, and one of Galloway’s characters, the counter-sniper Arrow, is assigned without his knowledge to protect him. On a page all to itself, Galloway reminds us that his novel “is above all a work of fiction.” The next page is an epigraph from Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war,/but war is interested in you.”
The Cellist of Sarajevo follows three residents of Sarajevo, four if you count the cellist, as they endure the siege. Making the journey to collect drinking water from the only safe source is now an odyssey fraught with danger for Kenan. Dragan’s wife and son have long been in Italy. He must now live with his sister and brother in law because his own apartment is ruined. As an employee of a bakery, he is entitled to eat there, which he does to relieve his sister of further responsibility for him, but getting there is extremely dangerous. The snipers in the hills outside the town are always there. And then there is Arrow, not her given name, allowed, for the time being, some choice over whom she targets. When her superior is relieved of his command, what will the consequences be for her if she refuses to become a killer on demand?
Most of the novel is written in the present tense, so the reader experiences the immediacy of what is happening to the characters. Having three distinct narratives also underscores the way Sarajevo’s inhabitants are losing their sense of community and coherence. Normal connections are breaking down. For fleeting moments, strangers may connect while friends are lost. Memories and identity are insecure. Daily life has become a drudgery of fear. There are no super heroes here, only ordinary people holding on to the last shreds of and asserting their humanity, ordinary people paying the price of politics and hate. Further drawing attention to the way in which war robs us of ourselves, reducing us to nameless objects, Galloway never refers to Smailović by name. The other characters know of him only as the cellist who’s playing Albinoni’s Adagio to commemorate twenty-two people killed: people he didn’t know by name.
Warsaw 1939, Saigon in the sixties, Beirut, Sarajevo, Sana’a, Aleppo—we have seen it all before: nameless figures on the screen crying as they struggle dust-covered and bleeding from out of shattered buildings. Emotionally removed because the carnage is alien to us, we register the terrorized, the wounded and the dead as distant but familiar objects. The Cellist of Sarajevo reminds us of the individuality of those who live through and die in war. With one major exception Galloway creates subjects.
Vedran Smailović was angered by the book and “never blessed this project” http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/out-of-the-war-into-a-book-and-in-a-rage/news-story/dcd310e8a08f2af80c8449892cf23433 Web. 7 January 2017). Galloway’s cellist is unnamed, objectified as a plot device. How should we respond to what Galloway does in the novel? Do we see his use of Smailović’s experience and actions as a kind of theft, an invasion of privacy, or simply extremely bad manners to be forgiven because of the novel’s strengths?
While I am in no way denying that The Cellist of Sarajevo strikes the reader powerfully, I’m not sure that the novel has more than appeals to emotion. As a member of my reading group commented, “there is no real depth.” Another was disappointed in the work because as she said, “I like plot and character” (Private remarks. January 2017). Our group spent a little time discussing particularly the apparent lack of plot and character development. Given the emotional, even moral power, of the work, it is possibly somewhat churlish of me to find it to be almost too documentary in there is not that much sense of resolution. Perhaps for Arrow? I’m not sure whether I sense any resolution for Kenan and Dragan. I found myself contrasting the novel with Timothy Findley’s The Wars, also highly documentary in its presentation, but which provides a sense of resolution for Robert Ross and the reader.
Both Galloway and Findley are Canadian writers, and The Cellist of Sarajevo is very Canadian in some ways. The prose is spare, the tone, as noted above, documentary, and its focus survival. Yes, I know, it’s considered by some to be really quite passé to think about survival as a major theme in Canadian literature; after all, Margaret Atwood published Survival (A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Anansi) in 1972, three years before Galloway was born. Nevertheless, at the heart of The Cellist of Sarajevo is the characters’ need to survive, not just physically, but as themselves, autonomous, authentic subjects of their own lives. I just wish Galloway had gone a little further into those lives.
Given the intensity of the novel’s initial impact, it might have worked better in the concentrated form of the short story. I can see it, if pared down to Arrow’s story alone, adapting really well to a screenplay. As it is, the novel is either too unresolved for a novel or too long for a short story. It shocks and disturbs, even raises ethical questions, but it moves too quickly and allows us only a brief opportunity to experience a frisson of empathy before we turn away from the horror. It doesn’t hold the attention as does Goya’s series The Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica. Those images resonate in my consciousness long after I’ve engaged with them in a way that Galloway’s novel does not.
You can no doubt sense my strong ambivalence with regard to this novel. Perhaps if the novel had not been lauded in quite the way it has, I would feel somewhat less hesitant about finding some of that praise hyperbolic. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a very powerful, skillfully crafted novel; I’m just not sure it’s a great one.