The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

6984009Fiction — audiobook. Read by Gareth Armstrong. Naxos Audiobooks, 2010. Originally published 2008. 5 hours, 23 minutes. Library copy.

Set at the beginning of what would become a nearly four-year long siege of the city, four individuals are attempting to navigate the complex jungle that Sarajevo has become. A man named Kenan has left his wife and child to collect water from a clean, working source on the other side of the city while another man, Dragan, has left the safety of his apartment in search of food. Both men fear for their lives as they move through the shelled streets of Sarajevo because the snipers have set in the hills around the city and the burnt out buildings shooting innocent civilians at random.

One of those snipers is a twenty-eight year old women who has shed her civilian identity and adopted the code name Arrow. Pulled from her position by the nationalist militia she’s aligned herself with, Arrow is assigned to a protect the titular character — a cellist who has decided to serenade the city for twenty-two days. One day for each of the friends and neighbors he saw killed by a mortar in front of his apartment building as they queued up for bread.

The beauty of this gesture seems incredibly stupid given conditions on the ground and the struggles of Kenan and Dragan to source food and water. And yet the music is what allows Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow to reconnect with their own humanity. Allows them to ponder about life before the war and the possibility of life after the war; allows them to see the people hiding in the shadows with them as humans rather than shields from the snipers

And this struggle to persevere one’s humanity is the central focus of Galloway’s novel. Dragan has also lost his community because hiding away from windows, away from the scopes of the snipers means he has had little contact with his friends since the siege began. On this particular trip to source food, he runs into a friend and is finally able to reconnect with his own humanity.

Kenan’s elderly female neighbor asks for assistance with fetching water, and Kenan is dismayed that she insists on using a particular set of canisters. The lack of handles on these containers make them difficult to carry, to run with thus placing Kenan’s life in greater peril as he moves about the city. Kenan wants to ignore her and focus on the survival of himself and his family highlighting how (civil) war tears apart the community, which in turn helps to perpetrate the violence.

And, most poignantly, there is Arrow who is trying to protect her humanity by keeping her true identity and her history a secret from her commanders. If she keeps her life as a student and then as a sniper — as a killer of men and women without concern for their innocence — separate, then maybe one day she can return to who she was. One day she can put down her arms and walk away. Or, one day she will die as a sniper without tarnishing the innocence of the person she used to be.

Shifting between three different seemingly unconnected characters drawn together by a theme or an event is a popular style in fiction these days, and nothing about the way Galloway utilizes this style stands out to me. The same could be said about his word choice or the narration by Gareth Armstrong, who read the novel in a style reminiscent of recorded audio tours sold by museums for tourists.

But the questions his characters raise about humanity and identity and the great care he takes to explain what is lost amidst the complexities of war is what made this novel so remarkable for me. And it is worth noting that Galloway never utilized divisive words like “Serb”, “Croat”, or “Bosnian” to describe his characters. Everyone is a Sarajevan; everyone’s humanity and shared community is affected by this war.

It’s also interesting to note that this fictional tale is based on the life of Vedran Smailović, who played his cello in ruined buildings during the siege and at funerals, which were frequent targets of snipers. Galloway never explicitly named the cellist in his story, but Smailović has publicly expressed outrage that the novel was based on him without his permission.


  1. J.E. Fountain

    Hello Aredent Reader. If your feed is anything like mine, you have to skim the topics, always fearing you are missing something good, but whatcha gonna do. This title really caught my attention, and your review did the rest. Nice review. Adding it to the TBR…be a while though. *sigh* Anyway, Sarajevo was once such a beautiful city, a real gem, it is so heartbreaking what happened there is so short a time.


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