I picked up the Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway because of my interest in music. But I find that it’s more like a meditation on the senselessness of war than a story on some theme regarding the power of music. The novel has no clear beginning, middle and end. Maybe, that’s how it should be. The story happens during a real war, when Sarajevo was under siege by Bosnian Serbs. The siege lasted four years, the longest in war history. The book plunges us right in the middle of that war. And we leave the characters still in the middle of that war.
While the title of the book refers to a real cellist, Vedran Smailovic, the three main characters are fictitious; and the author is quick to point out that he jams his story into a much shorter period than the time the siege actually happened. And apart from the musical performance that inspired the story we never learn anything about Mr. Smailovic.
Vedran Smailovic played Tomas Albinioni’s Adagio for twenty-two consecutive days, to honor each of the twenty-two fatal victims of the shelling near a bakery. The victims were standing at a bread line not far from the cellist’s apartment.
The novel, however, is only tangentially about him. The author uses him as a device to help achieve his intent, which is to illustrate how people react to a war that’s both unpredictable and outside their control.
He focuses on existential questions that an unruly war forces his characters to face. How do they cope with a war like this? What does it mean to them? Does it change how they value their lives, or life in general?
The characters’ main concern are snipers on the hills above Sarajevo who can kill them anytime they venture out on the streets. The enemy snipers will shoot anyone, anytime, and anywhere—although certain streets are known to provide better lines of sight from the hills.
There is, in psychology, a concept (also a theory) called learned helplessness. It refers to behaviors, notions, even physical reactions of anyone when she confronts conditions she cannot control. The worst consequence of uncontrollable conditions is depression and the increased probability of suicide.
Living in a war fueled by ethnic hatred, the characters have learned to be helpless. They feel numb, stop caring, cower in fear, freeze, collapse, give up. But they find some transitory hope in the cellist. To them, he may embody a wish that the danger and devastation they’ve had to endure would stop.
The most intriguing character, Arrow, is a female sniper for the defenders of Sarajevo. In this fiction, she’s been assigned to take down an enemy sniper sent to kill the cellist. Initially the most active and confident of the three, Arrow is the one who finally gives up. A second character has a family he must protect, and they keep him going. The third, old and essentially alone, is fearful, hopeless, and withdrawn, although he rallies a little in the end.
Like the Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, this is a novel rooted in the history of a particular country. But unlike the Glass Palace, it focuses on one event in the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina.