In war-torn Sarajevo, a cellist commits himself to play the same piece, in the same place, at the same time each day for twenty-two days to honor the twenty-two victims of a mortar shelling that he witnessed from his window. A skilled sniper is secretly assigned to protect him from anyone who might stop him from completing his goal. Meanwhile, during those days of the cellist, retrieving water for one's family from the taps at a local brewery and encountering an old friend while waiting to cross the street become, literally, death-defying acts for two ordinary residents of the city.
The Cellist of Sarajevo and his 22-day memorial concert during the 1990's Seige of Sarajevo are real, and they provide the framework for Steven Galloway's novel of the same name. The cellist himself is a minor character in the novel, although he plays an important role in the story of 'Arrow,' a highly skilled sniper whose self-appointed role in defending her city has been making soldiers her only targets. Kenan, an unemployed husband and father whose occupations these days include twice-weekly treks to obtain water for his family, and Dragan, who works part-time in a bakery and has sent his wife and son to Italy for their safety, have heard about the cellist, but have not seen him play. Other than this slight connection, the paths of these characters never cross.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is a rather strange novel. It didn't grab me right away, but rather it pulled me in gently and then held me till the end. It's brief, beautifully written in deceptively simple prose, and it's emotionally affecting, but as mentioned, in some respects it doesn't truly come together. I'm not sure it has to, though - in a conventional sense, anyway - and I don't necessarily see that as a drawback. Arrow's story is the most developed, and the only one that has an identifiable narrative arc. Kenan's and Dragan's stories both take place over the course of one day - it's not established whether it's the same day, and it doesn't really matter. Their stories convey the sense of what it's like to live day to day under siege and war conditions: the deprivation, the combination of terror and complacency, the struggle against despair and inhumanity, and the exposure to danger that comes with the most ordinary acts.
I have a wide pessimistic streak, and I tend to believe that safety is an illusion - bad things can happen to anyone, anywhere. But living my middle-class life in my small, comfortable suburb and complaining about the traffic on my daily commute give me the luxury of believing that without having to test it much. The people who lived through the Siege of Sarajevo had to face that every day of their lives.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is a book I'm not sure I would have noticed if it weren't for book bloggers, but I read so many positive things about it that I wanted to read it for myself. I'm not sure it's for everyone, but those who appreciate well-written, thought-provoking literary fiction may find it appealing.