The Cellist of Sarajevo

By Steven Galloway
Canadian author Steven Galloway’s third novel is an intensely moving story, set during the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996). It is partly based on an actual event, in which twenty-two people were killed while waiting in line for bread. The next day, a famous cellist enters the square where the shelling took place and plays the Albinoni Adagio in their memory. He vows to return and play each day for each person killed, thus twenty-two days altogether.
Although the title derives from this incredible incident, the cellist’s actions serve mainly as background to the story. He does not interact with any of the main characters, although they are aware of him and in some cases, their lives are affected by him. Three separate narratives tell the stories of three different people struggling to survive in a world that has changed from a civilized society to one of anarchy. Everyday they are confronted with choices that could lead to death or injury or to a loss of integrity and self-respect. They feel helpless, abandoned, vulnerable, angry and terrified. Yet, in many moving scenes, they exhibit courage in the face of fear, and a determination not to lose their humanity.
Galloway’s vivid prose brings the characters to life and the intertwining stories create suspense. The most arresting story for me was that of Arrow, a young female sniper. She has been dragged into the conflict against her will, and unfortunately for her, she is very talented. She is afraid that she will never be able to return to being the person she was before the war. Her personal struggle is by far the hardest.
The ending is incredible and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it. It is both sad and hopeful, and it will remain with you for a long time. Sad for various reasons, not the least being the inevitable politics of any situation, so that even in a case where all should be fighting together against a common enemy, there is still conflict and in-fighting within the ranks. But it is also hopeful because we see a determination to be true to oneself in the face of death or torture.
This is a powerful, haunting story, that I hope many will read. We lucky ones in Canada sometimes need a reminder, not only of what others endure in war-torn countries, but how quickly and easily our world can be transformed into such a state. Kudos to Mr. Galloway.

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