The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Sarajevo Rose

A Sarajevo Rose: a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell explosion, later filled with red resin.

I’ve been reading Steven Galloway’s novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, set during the siege of Sarajevo – the longest city siege in modern history, lasting from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. The novel’s action is compressed, and is a meditation on the life-affirming significance of music and how neighbours and compatriots can be reduced to non-persons, hated simply for being ‘one of them’.

The novel, written in spare prose, details the daily struggles for existence of three of the city’s inhabitants: a sniper who calls herself Arrow; Kenan, a father traversing the city to get water for his family; and Dragan, whose wife and son managed to escape to Italy.

The novel opens with a cellist sitting by a window. He is playing Albinoni’s Adagio while outside a queue of people wait to buy bread. Seconds later, a shell explodes in the marketplace and they are killed. Next day, he carries his cello down to the carnage-strewn street. He positions a stool in a crater and begins once again to play the Adagio. He goes on to do this every day for 22 days, one day for each victim.

Galloway has avoided using any ethnic or religious labels in The Cellist of Sarajevo. The main characters are simply referred to as Sarajevans, their common enemy described only as ‘the men on the hills’. Arrow, the sniper, wonders about these men that she kills every day:

Do the men On the hills hate her or do they hate the idea of her, because she’s different from them, and that in this difference there might be some sort of inferiority or superiority that is hers or theirs, that in the end threatens the potential happiness of everyone. She begins to wonder whether they fight against an idea, and that fight manifests itself as hatred. If so, they are no different from her. Except for one key detail that simply can’t be ignored or pushed aside.  The idea she felt prepared to give her life for was not one that could include the hatred she feels for the men on the hills. The Sarajevo she fought for was one where you didn’t have to hate a person because of what they were.  It didn’t matter what you were, what your ancestors had been, or what your children would be.  You could hate a person for what they did. You could hate a murderer, you could hate a rapist, and you could hate a thief.  This is what first drove her to kil the men on the hills, because they were all these things.   But now, she knows, she’s driven mainly by a hatred of them, the idea of them as a group, and not by their actions.

In The Guardian, Zoe Green wrote:

Galloway threads these individual stories together, narratives criss-crossing: three weeks in the lives of individuals struggling to survive as their beloved city is besieged. The characters of Arrow and the cellist are based upon real people, but in his examination of their feelings and motives, Galloway makes them his own. They are worn out with war, fearful of what will become of them and their loved ones. Only the cellist and his music brings hope – hope that mankind is still capable of humanity, that the old world is not completely lost, that the war has not destroyed everything. Galloway’s style is sparse, pared down; his prose has the deceptive simplicity of a short story. The work of an expert, The Cellist of Sarajevo is a controlled and subtle piece of craftsmanship.

Cellist Vedran Smajlovic in the ruins of Sarajevo Library

Cellist Vedran Smajlović in the ruins of Sarajevo Library

There really was a Sarajevo cellist: Vedran Smajlović, a former cellist in the Sarajevo String Quartet who endured the Siege of Sarajevo, survived the cold, food and water shortages, the constant bombings and sniper fire in the street. In 1992, Smajlović played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on his cello at various times during the day to honour the 22 people who had been killed while queuing for bread at 10:00am. This act caught the imagination of people around the world. Composer David Wilde wrote a piece for cello called “The Cellist of Sarajevo” in his honour which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma. He now lives in Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland, and is reportedly non too-pleased with Galloway’s portrayal of him:

I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day.  They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at ten in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine.  I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello.

The book opens with another historical distortion: the story of  how, in the ruins of firebombed Dresden,  an Italian musicologist found four bars of  a sonata’s bass line in the ruins of Saxon State Library. Remo Giazotto believed they were by Albinoni and he spent the next 12 years reconstructing the piece. The Adagio in G minor for strings and organ continuo is still referred to as ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’, but has now been established as an entirely original work by Giazotto. Since Giazotto’s death in 1998 it has emerged that the piece is entirely his composition, as no such fragment has been found or recorded to have been in possession by the Saxon State Library.

Ruins of the National Library Sarajevo

Ruins of the National Library, Sarajevo

Footnote on the burning of the Bosnian National Library during the siege:

Robert Fisk, reporting the war in the early 1990s, coined the term culturecide to refer to the deliberate destruction of art, archaeological artefacts and historic buildings that he saw happening around him. Destroying tangible cultural artefacts strikes at the heart of the people who cherish them. Kemal Bakarsic, chief librarian of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina before the war, said, “I think the aim of this kind of aggression, against museums, against libraries, is to erase our remembrance of who we are”.

In late August, 1992, Serbian forces began a careful attack on the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Library had been established in 1945 from several much older collections and contained somewhere in the area of a million and a half books which represented, according to book historian Nicholas Basbanes, “a common heritage that Muslims, Serbians, and Croatians had shared for more than four hundred years”. It was not only an attack on non-Serbian ethnic culture, it was an attempt to destroy any record of multiple ethnicities living in harmony.

The bombardment of the National Library was not an isolated book-burning incident in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia. A few months before the Library was bombed, Serbian nationalists had targeted the Oriental Institute, also in Sarajevo, destroying thousands of Jewish and Islamic manuscripts in a variety of languages, along with thousands of documents. Other libraries were also attacked, including the Library of the Museum of Herzegovina and the Archives of Herzegovina as well as the library of the Roman Catholic Archbishopric in Mostar