"The Cellist Of Sarajevo"

The Cellist Of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

This is a story told without a lot of emotion, as though a numbness has settled into the pages. Such horrific loss, unthinkable living conditions and fear from which there is never a moment of relief, probably leaves you with only two choices: become numb or go insane.

It is the characters who drive this story and not the plot itself. These people are braver than I can begin to comprehend. My favorite character is the cellist. He has determined to play his cello on the street where 22 people were killed by a bomb as they stood in line waiting for bread. He will play one day for each person lost. His refusal to be beaten down, even when he too is numb with suffering is a stunning testament to the strength of the life force within human beings.

The other main characters are: Kenan, a young man trying to provide for his wife and children in a bombed out shell of a city with no ready source of food or water, Dragan, a 65 year old man whose wife and 18 year old son got out of the city just before the war started, and Arrow, a young female soldier. Arrow is a skilled sniper who is turning into someone she doesn't recognize anymore and believes it has to be that way if she is to survive this war. Then she is assigned to protect the cellist.

The description of the city in ruins is as real as the room you're sitting in. The loss of the theater and the library, the image of a city once so full of life dying all around them is heartbreaking. Here are a couple of quotes that really got to me:

"Everything around him is grey. He's not sure where it came from, if it was always there and the war has simply stripped away the color that hid it, or if this grey is the color of war."

"For days afterward the ash of a million books floated down onto the city like snow" (describing the burning of a library housed in a century-old building).

I love the way this book is written. The four stories are told from their own unique viewpoints, but still they fit together like pieces of a puzzle to give a bigger picture of what war is doing to this city and it's people. The cellist and his music are the thread of hope running through all their stories. I couldn't quite imagine how the author was going to tie it all up at the end, but wow, it was beautifully done I thought.

Rather than give too much away, I'll just quote another few lines to transition from the sense of despair in the first part of the book to the hope that begins to rise toward the end:
"The men in the hills didn't have to be murderers. The men in the city didn't have to lower themselves to fight their attackers. She didn't have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that."

Each character, in their own way, comes to the same conclusion. They would hold on to their humanity no matter what and refuse to become the soulless creatures their enemies would turn them into. It's a sad story, but there are good things too. The ingenuity of people who have only themselves to depend on and the raw hope that is still there when everything else is gone make this a beautiful book. I watched a movie the other night that asked "Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?". These characters face that question and their journeys to the answer make this book well worth reading.

This is my fifth book for the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by John at Book Mine Set


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