Nirmala Lakshman

Lit by Books: Humanity amid horror

What happens when the world as you know it ceases to be, gripped by war and violence? Building upon a real incident from the 1992 bombing, The Cellist of Sarajevo affirms that art and music are the only solace left in a world gone mad…

Confucius the Chinese philosopher said, when music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war. Two thousand five hundred years afterwards, the seemingly tenuous equation between war and music and art is still being stringently tested as a lone cellist sits in the midst of a fire-bombed city and plays an adagio for 22 days, each day commemorating the 22 deaths of fellow citizens who died as they stood in a bread line in the midst of a city under siege. What is the place of art and music when humanity swiftly crumbles and the football fields of the youth are turned into cemeteries? Can music stop the hidden snipers in the hills who target innocent civilians as they walk the streets and bridges of their beloved city? These are the questions that leap out at us from The Cellist of Sarajevo, a tense and haunting novel inspired by the actual siege of Sarajevo in 1992. This is a book that challenges our civilisational values while paying poignant and powerful homage to the human spirit.

Fictional recreation

Drawing from the actual performance of a cellist, Vedran Smailovic, the novel by Canadian author Steven Galloway is a fictional recreation of the event when the cellist played in the middle of the street unmindful of the spray of bullets around him. The novel extends into the daily lives of three people, each of whom has a purpose whether it is the simple act of fetching drinking water for the family, crossing a street on the way to work, or protecting the cellist himself from a sniper's bullet. In the first few pages the cellist looks down from his window at “the last instant of things as they were” before “the visible world explodes”. As he mutely witnesses the devastation below his window, he sees a woman's bloodied handbag sparkling with glass and he also sees the bow that has just dropped from his hand onto the floor. It seems to him that there is a connection between the two objects, but he cannot tell then what it could be. But he knows for sure that he needs to play Albinoni's Adagio sitting in the hollowed out crater where the mortar fell. The Adagio itself was reworked from a fragment after the last existing score was lost when the Dresden Music Library was bombed during World War II. The recreated music did not exactly match Albinoni's composition but it was nevertheless beautiful. Surely the irony does not miss the cellist as he chooses to touch his bow to string and the music streams out in defiance of death and destruction.

Changed lives

There are three people in the war-ravaged city whose movements we follow. There is Arrow, the sniper who defends the city from those in the hills. She does not want to remember her real name but remembers instead another day years ago, when she was driving around in her father's car and a favourite song came on the radio, and with the sunlight filtering through the trees reminding her of her grandmother's lace curtains, she wept for the joy of being alive. “She realises that for no particular reason she stumbles into the core of what it is to be human. It's a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous, and that it won't last forever.” So as Arrow guards the cellist upon the order of her commander, it is not just that she is protecting the life of an artist, a fellow citizen, but she knows that must also kill the soldiers who have robbed her and everyone else in the city of this precious insight.

There is Kenan, whose daily journey to bring water for his family and for an elderly curmudgeonly neighbour is fraught with palpable but unseen danger. He has to dodge sudden sniper fire as he trudges through the alleyways weighed down by the water jugs that he carries. As he watches the cellist, a woman whose daughter died in the bread line asks him what she should tell her grandchildren when they ask her how their mother died, and Kenan knows he has no answer to give her. He can only dream that this beloved ghost city will come alive again one day and he can sit in a restaurant without fear eating into him and take his daughter out for ice cream.

Dragan is a baker who has sent his wife and grown-up son to safety across the border. He too has to confront the everyday fear of crossing the streets that echo with gunfire and are no longer familiar. He has seen three people killed by the shots of the snipers. Two died instantly, but one who was first hit in the chest and then in the neck died a much worse death. Dragan is afraid of the time between such a shot and dying. Later he runs into Emina, his wife's friend, and as they cross the intersection with other people, the bullets rain on them and Emina is struck. She will survive, but Dragan, relieved for her yet ashamed that he was unscathed and unable to help her, knows that he cannot leave his beautiful city. Not now, not ever.

Art as necessity

This book is about what war does to ordinary people. Through the characters we are forced to examine the roots of violence in our society caused by “our willingness to abdicate control over who we hate” as Steven Galloway says in an interview. It is also about how we turn to music and art not always as a luxury but as a necessity when the world around us crumbles. It seems that they are the only things we have left when everything else ends.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, StevenGalloway, Atlantic Books, 2008, £ 7.99.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 1:24:17 PM |

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