In a city of sudden death, one cellist fights fire with hope
When artists bring music to a conflict zone, as Zubin Mehta did this month in Kashmir, they undoubtedly aim to help heal a battered people. Yet, it’s not easy. There are controversies, death threats, and precautions that keep the music away from those who most need it.
Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo is based on two events that occurred during the four-year siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb soldiers. In the first incident, 22 people were massacred while waiting in line to buy bread. To mark their deaths, a cellist performed Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for 22 afternoons on the same spot. Seated in the middle of a street with a bulky instrument between his knees, he was exposed to shelling and sniper fire for the space of each performance.
Galloway follows four characters through the city. The first is the cellist who chooses to play this composition, which was reconstructed from a fragment found in the firebombed music library in Dresden, during one of those wars that was to end all wars. The second character, who calls herself Arrow, is an ace university shooter, recruited as a sniper to pick off the soldiers who fire from the hills into the city. Kenan, a civilian, fills water in canisters for his family and risks sudden death every time he crosses a street or a bridge. Dragan, having sent his wife and son into safety, now lives with his sister’s family, tolerated chiefly for the bread he brings home from his job at the bakery.
Arrow is assigned to protect the cellist for those 22 days, a nearly impossible task that requires her to second guess the intelligence, strategy and location of an enemy sniper who may (or may not) be out to shoot the cellist and who may (or may not) target her also.
In this short period of time, in a small section of the city, every atrocity of war is played out. One character expresses the daily despair of those who queue for bread and have no idea when it will all end: “I’m afraid that it will stay like this forever, that this war isn’t a war, but just how life will be.” Navigating the streets unhurt are the buyers and sellers who fatten on the miseries of the rest, get rich from trading guns and black market goods, and commit more war crimes than anyone.
Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor is deliberately paced and heartbreaking, rather like a long siege. Some of the characters do find the music healing, for a time: as Kenan listens he seems to see the roads and buildings repair themselves, he imagines going out for ice cream with his family and telling his daughter to be careful with the boy who is taking her to the movies. He lives normality for the length of the adagio.
In Sarajevo, once the fighting ended, a devastated people may ultimately have found a way back to harmony. In Kashmir, we wait to see.