Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Cellist Of Sarajevo

I have always loved stories about war. I know that sounds a little morbid, but these are the stories that speak powerfully to the dignity and generosity of the human spirit while under extraordinary duress, and that is a beautiful thing to be included in. This weeks unforgettable book, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Canadian author Steven Galloway, is an elegiac, imaginative, and extraordinary novel, inspired by an actual event during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992. It explores the brutality of war and the redemptive power of music. Crafted with unforgettable imagery and heartbreaking simplicity, this book speaks forcefully to the triumph of the spirit in the face of overwhelming despair.

The Cellist of Sarajevo captures with taut, painstaking clarity, the events and atmosphere surrounding the siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern warfare. The novel’s linchpin is the true story of a cellist who resolves to play Albinoni’s Adagio on the same square every day for 22 days in honor of the victims of a massacre that took place there. Everyone has a different perspective on the cellist’s motivation, as they wonder aloud what he is trying to prove, beauty having become mostly a source of irony in their desolate lives. But the cellist is more than a symbol of resistance; as one of the characters, Arrow, listens to him play, "she leans back into the wall. She's no longer there. Her mother is lifting her up, spinning her around and laughing. The warm tongue of a dog licks her arm." The Cellist unites the stories threads, as his music becomes the backdrop to each page.

Chapters alternate between the perspectives of three primary characters, acting almost like three short stories pieced together. There is Arrow, a young woman who has gone from university shooting champion to crack sniper, taking aim at the men in the hills who are besieging Sarajevo. When she is eventually ordered to commit a different kind of killing, she must begin to question who she is and why she kills. Listening to the cellist, Arrow "let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat.... Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. The men on the hills didn't have to be murderers.... She didn't have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that."

Kenan lives with his wife and two children, in a small apartment with no water and only intermittent electricity. He has struggled to avoid engaging in the conflict, but every four days must venture out to the old brewery and get water for his family and elderly neighbor, an undertaking that has him nearly paralyzed with fear, where each wrong step can lead to death, or worse, loss of dignity. "One moment the people are walking or running through the street, and then they drop abruptly as though they were marionettes and their puppeteer had fainted."

Lastly we meet Dragan. His wife and son have, he assumes, escaped safely to Italy so he is now living with his sister and her husband. As he takes circuitous routes to get to his work and food at the bakery, he recalls its past as he's faced with its present: "Every day," he muses, "the Sarajevo he thinks he remembers slips away from him a little at a time, like water cupped in the palms of his hands, and when it's gone, he wonders what will be left. He isn't sure what it will be like to live without remembering how life used to be, what it was like to live in a beautiful city."

With exquisite writing, this gripping novel transcends time and place. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a testimony of the strength of the human heart, and the possibility of the survival of the human spirit in the direst of circumstances. Galloway shows the reader the simple lives of his characters while defining the essence of what it means to be human, making the novel a universal story, and forcing the reader wonder what he or she would do faced with similar circumstances. As Galloway points out in his short introduction: “The themes and characters exist wherever ordinary people find themselves caught in war. Sarajevo could be Lebanon or Chechnya or Iraq or a half-dozen other places”.

Galloway’s style is spare and unadorned – a mirror to the skeletal city and its emotionally numbed inhabitants. “Arrow wonders what will be left standing when morning comes, whether there will be any noticeable difference in the appearance of the city. There must come a point where so much has been turned to rubble that ruining a little more makes no difference. It’s possible that point has already been reached.” Although Galloway’s characters weigh the value of their lives against the choices they must make, he effectively creates a fifth character in the city itself, capturing the details among the rubble and destruction that give added weight to his memorable novel.

While reading this book, I was traveling in Montreal for some dance workshops. One morning I walked into the studio to see everyone in the class warming up to Bob Marley. It was kind of an odd sight, seeing all of these graceful ballerinas singing and pulsing along to the music, but it was also a wonderful reminder of the power of music. In this single room were people from all over the world, including England, Spain, Russia, and Canada, and even though they all come from different places, speak different languages, and were raised differently, they were all brought together by this song.

“At once an expansion and a deepening of the thematic concerns that weave themselves throughout his work and a glittering testament to the power of art to counteract hatred and division.... Galloway’s novel, bursting with life, is a vivid reminder of the power of art to dispel the darkness.”

As a dancer and dance teacher, I have studied many styles of dance and choreography. One of the things that you learn when choreographing is to use a certain sequence several times over. This helps the audience stay engaged, and refocuses the attention back to the main story of the dance. Within the first few pages of this book, there was a phrase that was repeated several times. “It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expended in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There was a moment before impact that was the first instant of things as they were. Then the visible world exploded.” It was poetry. It was so impacting and memorable that I couldn’t stop thinking about this phrase throughout the rest of the book. It was after reading only the first few pages that I fell in love with this story.

I find that when I read certain books, they spark an interest in something else that I want to know more about, as was the case with this book. Since I knew basically nothing about the siege of Sarajevo, I went online to find out a little more, and came across this very interesting article from the London Times. It describes Verdran Smailovics, the real cellist, displeasure at finding his photograph on the original dust jacket of this book. The article also includes author Steven Galloway's reaction to Smailovic's dismay at being the inspiration for a fictional character, while bringing up some very interesting points. “I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello. But if I do not get justice now I will burn it back in Sarajevo.” My Tip for this book is to indulge in topics of interest to you. Do a little research, find out more on the subject, and enjoy learning something new. Below is the link to view the article, and I suggest taking a look at it, for it brings a somewhat new perspective to someone affected by fame and their actions.

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