Another of those books to rise to the surface in post-Booker-pre-Giller discussions was The Cellist of Sarajevo by Vancouver-based writer Steven Galloway. Originally published in Australia, KevinfromCanada successfully predicted this book's Giller long list inclusion and recommended it highly in the process.I think the Giller shortlist is imminent and though I haven't read the others I'd love to see this one included.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is one of those reads that zooms a lens in on the minutiae of lives lived under seige and somehow it feels shocking yet stupidly naive of me to realise that this went on only recently. Of course it did, we read about it every day in the news, but seige seems like such an ancient tool of war, Pompeian-esque tactics in fact.
Deeply affected by the sight of a mortar bomb exploding on a queue of people waiting to buy bread, the cellist decides that he will set up on the exact spot and play Albinoni's 'Adagio' for twenty-two consecutive days, one day for each life lost. At high risk of being picked off by snipers, Arrow, once the star of the university shooting team, is assigned as a counter-sniper to defend the cellist's endeavour against the threat of enemy attack, to lose the cellist would seem to sound the final death knell over the spirit of the Sarajevans and it must not be allowed to happen. Arrow is a woman and this creates an interesting dimension as Steven Galloway infuses her with a fascinating concoction of opposites, emotional vulnerability matched with a cast-iron toughness,
'She watches the sniper through the scope of her rifle and listens to the music off the street. It makes her sad.A heavy, slow kind of sad, the sort that does not bring you to tears but makes you feel like crying. It is, she thinks, the worst feeling there can be. Her finger is still on the trigger.If he moves she will fire.'
Life is then laid bare, except it's more like an existence, around the streets of this besieged city and lived as if on the edge of a knife. Repeatedly creating that sense of tension on the page without descending into sentimentality, repetition and ennui is a masterly skill, because life for the Sarajevans is reduced to the lowest of common denominators for survival. What now passes for normal life is attempting to cross the road without being shot, walking miles to collect water, and time and again this is exactly what they are doing.
A strange sort of sick feeling descended as I read on because it's hard to imagine what this fear must really be like yet Steven Galloway transmutes it from the words on the page and into the mind as if by thought transference. The paralysis of the terror is palpable and I was truly nervous and slightly twitchy each time I picked up The Cellist of Sarajevo and reading in fear for the lives of these ordinary people, to say nothing of the sitting target cellist quietly keeping the spirit of the city alive.
It is the tiniest details of life that matter when you are facing a form of living death by starvation but what survives also radiates from these same pages; humanity, a compassion of sorts, courage, seemingly small acts of unconditional kindness and alongside it all a fascinating moral maze of issues.One of those issues that of whether people are built for war or not and Steven Galloway offers beautiful characterisations of both extremes and much inbetween. There is finely tuned development and the slow emergence of a belief that life does have the power to be 'normal' again despite what has been lost, as with Dragan whose wife and son have fled the city leaving him to carry on as best he can with his bakery job,
'He's stopped talking to his friends, visits no one, avoids those who come to visit him. At work he says as little as possible...the destruction of the living is too much for him. If people are going to be taken away from him, either through death or a transformation of their personality that makes them into strangers, then he's better off without them.'
but as events unfold and the book draws to its conclusion with it comes an understanding for Dragan,
'He's been asleep since the war began.He knows this now. In defending himself from death he lost his grip on life.'
and all to the backdrop of the cellist playing that beautifully simple soul-saving music in this ravaged city. Prepare to shed a tear or two at the end and I won't reveal whether that's a sad or a happy sob, but an exquisite little book about the absolute futility and hopelessness of war and a lot more besides, with plenty more to discover on a second read I'm sure.
Then suddenly I remember a book from years ago which I have to read this minute, it's here somewhere and I've turned the house upsidedown looking, please can anyone tell me where I've put Zlata's Diary?