Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Cellist of Sarajevo - A small human act against terror

The exam period apocalypse I currently live in has been involuntarily reflected into the books I read. Cormac McCarthy's The Road followed the journey of a father and son through a destroyed world, but the author never gave a clear indication of what led to this devastation. The Cellist of Sarajevo describes another apocalypse - the siege of the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War. While the first one might have been caused by man, the second one indeed stems from the imperfections of our race.

The Siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege in the history of warfare, spanning for nearly four years. The bombs, artillery, mortars, rifles and other incredible human inventions killed 12,000, injured 56,000, destroyed thousands of homes, and turned a once beautiful capital city into ruins. An average of 329 shells hit the city every day, with a one-day high of 3777. Among the million personal tragedies, an inspirational story stands out. Vedran Smailovic, a cellist, witnessed the murder of 22 people, waiting to buy bread on the street outside of his home. The musician responded to the tragedy by sitting on the tragic square and playing Albinoni’s Adagio on his cello for 22 consecutive days - one for each of the victims. On a larger scale, this act seems irrational, dangerous, and pointless. On a personal level, it is an inspirational story of a human response towards violence and terror. It is exactly this story that inspired Steven Galloway's novel The Cellist of Sarajevo.

The figure of the lonely cellist unifies the stories of three different characters, living in Sarajevo during the siege. Dragan is a 64-year-long baker, who works at the bakery and lives with his sister's family. He managed to send his wife and son to Italy before the war began, but he himself stayed. Dragan avoids his old friends and acquaintances because they remind him too much of what Sarajevo used to be. Instead, he focuses on his daily survival and he dreams of what Sarajevo will be when the war ends. Standing at an intersection and wondering whether it is safe to cross or not, Dragan witnesses all kind of human emotions - fear, bravery, despair, indifference - and evaluates his approach to life and the war.

Kenan lives with his wife and 3 children. Living without electricity, having nothing to eat, and washing with cold water has become a routine to him. Avoiding conflicts and danger as well. However, every four days his bravery is put to the test, when he has to cross the whole town to bring water for his family and an older neighbor. Similarly to Dragan, his days are filled with fear of death, with longing for the past, and with questions about the future.

Contrary to these man, Arrow risks her life everyday. When the war started, the young woman abandoned her old name and her old personality and turned into the perfect weapon - one of the best snipers in the city. Her extraordinary ability and her independence earn her the task to protect the cellist, who as a symbol of hope, has been ordered to die by the attackers. Arrow fiercely fights the change that war is attempting to impose on her. She doesn't kill out of a feeling of revenge, but out of the simple logic that if she doesn't shoot, innocent people will die. She refuses to shoot civilians and she insists on remaining independent and choosing her own targets. However, even though she is not interested in the organized resistance, the organized resistance is interested in her. Arrow will have to decide whether she will allow the defenders in the city to changer her values and attitude.

The lives of these three ordinary people are affected by the unordinary act of the cellist. Dragan and Kenan stop by to listen to his music on the way to their daily survival. Arrow is charged to defend him. All three of them ask the question: "Why does he play? What does he want to accomplish? How does his music make a difference?" And all of them arrive at a similar answer, refracted through the prism of their experiences. They will not let the war change who they were before. They will not let fear prevail over human decency, compassion,and care. They will not give up, escape, or kill. They will stay here, act bravely, and be around for the restoring of their city.

Steven Galloway is as separated from Sarajevo and the Balkan tragedies as one can possibly be. Yet, the Australian author possesses an astonishing talent and a profound understanding for the human soul, when confronted with the brutality and fatuity of war. His fictions characters are not based on real people, yet their emotions, inner struggles, fears, and values cannot seam more real. Galloway creates a compelling and hopeful story about how even a simple act of music does more than honor the death; it gives the living a purpose to live.

1 comment:

  1. Just a note that Galloway is a Canadian author - not Australian. And the cellist in the story is loosely based on a real cello player from Sarajevo.