The Cellist of Sarajevo is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people caught up in a war they did not want and have no control over. The siege of Sarajevo is the longest running siege in modern history, lasting from April 1992 to February 1996 and killing around ten thousand people. An average of 329 shells hit the city every day and snipers in the surrounding hills targeted civilians, making everyday tasks like a game of Russian Roulette. When the difference between life and death becomes totally random and out of your control and the person walking next to you can be shot down whilst you survive, life becomes unimaginable.
The Cellist of Sarajevo follows three characters. Dragan has managed to get his wife and son to safety but was unable to leave the city he loves himself. Kenan must make several dangerous journeys to find fresh water for his family. And Arrow has joined forces with the counter-snipers, trying to defend her city. All of them are struggling to come to terms with what happens when civilisation as you know it melts away.
Despite all of this, it is not a novel of despair. There are moments of humanity and hope amidst all of the destruction, such as people coming under sniper attacks themselves in order to save strangers. All three of the main characters struggle with how much humanity and civilisation they are going to allow the snipers to take away from them, and for one of them the simple act of walking with your head held high and greeting passers-by becomes an act of defiance;
"He will behave now as he hopes everyone will someday behave. Because civilisation isn't a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, recreated daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible." p216
The most powerful part of the book for me was how random death had become for the inhabitants of Sarajevo. At one point Dragan is waiting to cross an intersection and he witnesses some people cross without incident whilst others are gunned down and tries to figure out why some are targeted. But there is no answer and I can't imagine having to come to terms with that.
I was very impressed with Galloway's writing. Considering it is quite a slim book, he didn't need many words to create a powerful impact. The ending was extremely powerful and it's a book that I've carried on thinking about long after I put it down.
Verdict: Profound portrayal of the impact of war on ordinary people. Highly recommended.
First Published: 2008
Score: 5 out of 5