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Flash Fiction Competition.
It’s the early nineties, and the city of Sarajevo is under siege by the Bosnian Serb forces. Three characters make their way through the chaos and destruction of the city streets: Kenan, on a journey across town to collect drinkable water for his family; Dragan, held up on his way to work, afraid to cross an intersection covered by a Serb sniper; and Arrow, a Sarajevan sniper struggling to maintain her independence. In the background to all of their lives is the music of the unnamed cellist of the title, who goes out into the street each day for twenty-two days, to play one adagio for each of the victims of a recent shelling.

The cellist himself is a minor part of the story, his stubborn and dangerous performances a symbol for the way that each character is trying to hold onto an idea of their life and the city as they were before the siege began. As Dragan sets out on his way to work, picking his way through rubble and carefully planning a route to avoid the most dangerous areas of the city, he contemplates the changes taking place around him:

Every day the Sarajevo he thinks he remembers slips away from him a little at a time, like water cupped in the palms of his hands, and when it’s gone he wonders what will be left. He isn’t sure what it will be like to live without remembering how life used to be, what it was like to live in a beautiful city. When the war first started he tried to fight the loss of the city, tried to keep what he could intact. When he looked at a building, he’d try to see it as it had once been, and when he looked at someone he knew, he tried to ignore their changes in appearance and behaviour. But as time went on he began to see things as they now were, and then one day he knew that he was no longer fighting the city’s disappearance, even in his mind. What he saw around him was his only reality.

Dragan’s wife and son have fled the city, and at first he dreams of following them, but later he comes to the conclusion that to leave the city now would be to leave it behind forever, and to sacrifice the concept of himself as a Sarajevan. This theme, of the importance of perception, is later taken up in Kenan’s story when, on his way home with his full canisters of drinking water, he discovers the cellist in mid-performance and pauses to hear him play:

He watches as the cellist’s hair smooths itself out, his beard disappears. A dirty tuxedo becomes clean, shoes polished bright as mirrors. […]

The building behind the cellist repairs itself. The scars of bullets and shrapnel are covered by plaster and paint, and windows reassemble, clarify and sparkle as the sun reflects off glass. The cobblestones of the road set themselves straight. Around him people stand up taller, their faces put on weight and colour. Clothes gain lost thread, brighten, smooth out their wrinkles.

Vedran Smailovic: the real cellist of Sarajevo

The performances of the cellist in the novel were inspired by a series of real performances given in Sarajevo by Vedran Smailovic. When he read the book, Smailovic was apparently upset at what he saw as the theft of his story. Galloway responded by pointing out that fictional accounts of public events aren’t at all uncommon, and that his cellist, while inspired by Smailovic, was certainly fictional. Still, it was perhaps unfortunate that the Canadian publisher chose to put a photograph of Smailovic on the cover of their edition. There’s a little more about this story here and here.

Essentially, then, The Cellist of Sarajevo presents three concurrent short stories about people struggling to maintain their identity and values in a destroyed city (the siege lasted a little under four years, and claimed more than 10,000 lives). It’s well written, absorbing, and short; it cuts itself off before having a chance to waste a word.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is Canadian author Steven Galloway’s third novel, although the first to be published in the UK (by Atlantic Books). It was published in the spring, and was longlisted last month for Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. Galloway teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia and at Simon Fraser University. Like Nam Le, he’s the product of the increasing trend for creative writing as an academic subject, to be taught and practised within an academic environment, but Galloway doesn’t seem to have suffered as Le has. Galloway’s prose in The Cellist of Sarajevo has clearly been to college (it’s polite, educated, and lacking in rough edges), but it has a strong rhythm and life to it, and doesn’t suffer from the over-editing that marred The Boat.

24 Comments on “The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway”

  1. KevinfromCanada Says:

    An excellent and fair review. While I don’t think this is a great book, I do think it is a bit of a treasure — the description of the book as three concurrent short stories is very apt. What has interested me since the book appeared is how powerful it was to people who have been to Sarajevo, both before and after the war (since I’m from Calgary there are quite a number around me — Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, Calgary the 88 Games so a fair number of organizers and volunteers were there before the siege). Something that Galloway does capture very well is the utter pointlessness of the siege and resulting destruction — although the Balkans does have a long history on that front which he doesn’t attempt to explore in depth.

    The observation about the increasing trend of work coming from creative writing departments is also interesting. In addition to the two you cite, 2008 Pulitzer Prize Winner Junot Diaz (MIT) and 2007 Booker-listed Peter Ho Davies (Michigan) pick up regular checks in creative writing departments. It does seem to be a North American phenomenon — I could come up with quite a few published Canadian authors who also work in creative writing departments.

    One small correction. So far the book has only been longlisted for the Giller Prize. I would predict that it will be on the shortlist when that is announced Oct. 7, so I wouldn’t rush to make a correction.

  2. Rob Says:

    Thanks for the catch—I’ve changed it to “shortlisted”, but I’ll be ready to come back and change it again in a couple of days. If it is shortlisted, just remember: you heard it hear first. Really.

    I must admit I haven’t read Diaz. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tripped my “wacky title” filter. In general though, I worry about the trend for creative writing in academic environments. Not only do these writers often lose some of the rough edges that keep prose vital, but there’s always a risk of being sheltered from the raw experience that should go into prose.

    I’m not talking about “writing what you know” in terms of pure autobiography, but I am talking about the importance of experiencing the world and coming back with your own story—even if it isn’t a story that happened specifically to you. It’s the difference between having something to say, and then finding a way to say it; and wanting to talk and looking for a topic, if you see what I mean. But maybe that’s such a generalisation that it’s almost meaningless.

    In this case, I think Steven Galloway did a good job of rising above these issues—and he’s obviously been further than Wikipedia for his research—but it’s also clear that The Cellist of Sarajevo isn’t his story; it doesn’t draw on his experiences, and that may the only thing that stops it from being a great book.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    1. The Diaz is a lot better than the title (which is terrible) or the cover design (which is even worse), in either the NA or UK versions.

    2. The other side of the creative writing academic trend is that it houses, feeds and clothes people so they can write. I think both points of view have legitimacy.

    3. I also share your concern that Galloway is writing about a “real” event that he has not personally experienced and agree that that is part of the reason this is not a great book, even though I think it is a very good one. You can’t help but think as you are reading it that this is one person’s thoughts about what things might have been like. As a former journalist, there is a part of me that says if you want to write about a real world you have to have been there. I do have a bias that says fiction based on real events needs to wait at least one, and preferably two, generations before being attempted. I’ll admit I am willing to overcome that bias with this book, but it is still a concern.

    4. This book did motivate me to read the Bridge on the Drina for which Ivo Andric won the 1961 Nobel Prize. It is literally just down the road from Sarajevo and Andric uses the bridge as the central “character” to describe some four centuries of conflict in Bosnia, from the Ottoman construction of the bridge in the mid-16th century into the middle of the 20th century (but, of course, pre the latest conflict). It is a very well done piece of work — the friend who recommended it to me is involved in various Balkan political conferences and says you can learn more about issues there from this novel than you can from any history book.

  4. Rob Says:

    1. Thanks, that’s worth knowing.

    2. That’s a fair point, although I can’t help wondering whether there are better ways to do that, or whether writers might not benefit from the experiences that come from finding other ways to feed and clothe themselves. That said, if I somehow found myself hugely rich, some kind of writing institute would be top of my list of philanthropic activities.

    3. I’m inclined to agree with your journalist’s perspective. It’s a row that blew up and died down again after The Tenderness of Wolves won the Costa. In that case, you may remember, the novel was set in Canada, but the author had never been there. (I’ve not read it, so can’t comment further on that particular case.) The problem as I see it is that, if the author has no direct connection to their subject, there’s no way that they can say something that’s true and insightful, but hasn’t been said before. I’m not sure I agree with you about the need to wait one or two generations, though. It’s true that time gives events more perspective and turns them into a narrative, but then, so does writing about them. In some ways, waiting makes it easier for the authors; time and the processes of history order things into a narrative on their behalf, and they just need to pick out the focus within that. Plenty of good novels have been written about major events within a shorter timeframe. Or was that not what you were thinking of? Tell me more.

    4. The Ivo Andric sounds like a very interesting book. Another one for the list of books I’ll never have time to read…

    Oh, and thanks for recommending The Cellist of Sarajevo.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did mean my statement as a bias — and one that good writers certainly can overcome. Actually having lived through the event does go a long way to doing that. On the other hand, sometimes that is a disadvantage — I would rather that both Updike and Delillo had not written their 9/11 books (which I think are dreadful) and I like both those authors. At the same time, I’ll admit that both Netherland and The Reluctant Fundamentalist impressed me. Perhaps I should moderate my bias to say that fiction writers who choose to use real political events as their background should be very aware that they are treading on treacherous ground.

  6. Rob Says:

    There’s nothing wrong with a little bias! And yes, I agree completely. I wonder how many of those 9/11 books were written by authors who had some half-baked notion that they should speak, rather than actually having something to say? I seem to remember that at the time, there was a strange reaction from some authors along the lines of, “I’m an important author, I have a duty to address this new important issue.”

    I very much agree with your journalistic angle. Authors are at their best when they go out and explore the world, whether geographically, socially, or whatever, and then use what they’ve discovered to inform their fiction. Of course there are exceptions, but write what you know is still a good rule of thumb.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    We have aligned our biases — your statement of “I have a duty” represents a very fair summary of my concern about these kinds of books. Sometimes books like this reduce rather than add value.

    I also want to salute you for your sidebar with links to the articles with Vedran Smailovic because I think it raises some important points about book writing and marketing that should be considered. Sorry about the length of the post, but since you are an editor I think this example is useful for would-be authors.

    1. I have no problem with the way that Galloway used this exceptional public event to create a context for his book. It was an incident that very effectively humanized an inhuman conflict. He is right that he only uses it to set up his stories and never puts words in the cellist’s mouth. I think that is quite appropriate.

    2. I start to get concerned when it comes to the title. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a unifying image for the book, but only an image. While I think that is appropriate licence for the author, I do get a little bit antsy when it becomes the book title — others would certainly have been more appropriate. After all, it is not what the book is really about.

    3. And then we come to the North American book cover. The web images are incomplete so if you have access to a physical copy, look it up. It is a very, very dramatic picture — the reason the web images are inadequate is that the cellist is actually on the spine. It is a masterful photograph, without a doubt, but at this stage I get more concerned on the “appropriation of image” idea that the cellist raises in his complaints. While I certainly accept the author starting his process from the event, given the way he limited his use, I do have serious questions about exploiting this very dramatic image.

    I am sorry that this issue distracts from the serious attention to the book — and I think it has. Galloway took a personal statement to create a context which he then explored. He does that very well. I’m afraid his publishers have exploited that statement. I judge the book by the words, but have to admit that I have concerns about the packaging. Given the North American debate about appropriation of identity (and I’m on the “let authors write what they write” side of that on), I do share concerns about what has happened here.

  8. Rob Says:

    I agree with you on every point—very nicely put.

    I’m glad you like the sidebar. I think both that and these comments give the chance to address these side issues, without bloating the review itself.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    The Cellist did not make the Giller shortlist — and I think your sidebar explains why (I know Atwood a little bit and this is the kind of thing that I think she would find unacceptable). I had a friend at the news conference and will report if he has any data on that, since I know he liked the book. I do think it is a very valid subject for debate — and agree that it has little to do with the actual writing itself, but rather the physical book itself. And the more I think about it, the more I think the cover is an unacceptable intrusion if the publisher did not have permission from the real cellist. So I can’t really disagree with the jury, since the prize is for the book, not the writing. I’m wondering is this is also why it didn’t even make the Man Booker shortlist.

    I’ll post the Giller shortlist on the MB website shortly.

  10. Rob Says:

    Thanks for the update—so much for my serendipitous exclusive! So which of the Giller shortlist titles have you read? (Other than the De Sa, of course.) Do you have a guess for the winner?

    (The titles are:

    Through Black Spruce – Joseph Boyden
    Barnacle Love – Anthony De Sa
    Good to A Fault – Marina Endicott
    Cockroach – Rawi Hage
    The Boys in the Trees – Mary Swan)

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’ve read everything but the Swan, which I scanned briefly and will read today. I think Barnacle Love is an excellent book, as you know. I also very much like Through Black Spruce. Boyden is part Metis, spends half the year in New Orleans, half in northern Ontario. He writes about First Nations people and Spruce explores indigenous issues in this book from two perspectives — one a fiftish bush pilot and trapper, trying to reconcile the traditional way of life with the modern world, the other his twentish niece trying to reconcile the modern world (she eventually gets to Manhattan) with the traditional. It is very well done. It is very much a North American book, although I would say it gives non-North Americans a good picture of some of the challenges facing First Nations people here while at the same time telling an interesting story.

    Cockroach I hated.

    Good to A Fault is an okay book but its strength is about the desire for motherhood and family in a middle-age, childless woman, which kind of leaves childless, male, 60-year-old me out of the picture. It also has some similarities to The Spare Room (a book I did not like at all) with a lot of hospital time with a cancer patient that I didn’t find very useful.

    My guess for the winner is one of the top two. I need to give Through Black Spruce a reread before I make a pick — at first blush, I think it would be the judges choice. At this stage, I like Barnacle Love better but suspect Spruce may be the better book.

  12. Rob Says:

    Through Black Spruce and Barnacle Love sound like the titles worth tracking down, then.

    I see that Weidenfeld & Nicolson are publishing Through Black Spruce in the UK next year. Sadly, I can’t find any info on a UK publication for the De Sa, so that’ll have to go on my next Trans-Atlantic book order.

    Thanks for these suggestions, Kevin. It’s great to get such an informed insight into Canadian literature.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    You are welcome, Rob. I’m very pleased to see someone who treats Canadian literature seriously.

    I’ve put Blackstrap off to the side for a while but one of my fellow Shadow Giller jury members, Alison, has read it and I will ask her to post thoughts here. She knows her books — and she knows Newfoundland (and the author) — so I think both you and John would find her thoughts worthwhile. With luck, she will agree to share them — since she’s read the book (which I don’t think many people have), it would seem offering thoughts would be appropriate. Stay tuned.

    The De Sa is up on the Book Depository site, but you can get it cheaper by ordering it from chapters-indigo.ca. It appears some NA publishers are using the depository to sell NA versions — the shipping is “free”, the problem is the NA publishers add the trans-Atlantic costs into their cover price. I do think it is a very good book.

    If you have time for Through Black Spruce, I would be very interested in your thoughts. Given where I live, it speaks to important issues in a very effective manner. I would be most interested in how that lands with someone who is pretty far removed from those issues (I’m assuming indigenous people are not a major issue in Oxford and Rome).

  14. Rob Says:

    I’ve just realised there’s a dedicated Canadian bookstore in Paris—I’m going there next month. I’ll have a look for the titles when I’m there. (That will save me negotiating taxes with the postman here, too. Books in the UK are VAT-free, but not so in Italy, where there’s a reduced rate of 4% tax on books.)

    I’m very keen to hear the thoughts of somebody who’s read Blackstrap Hawco. I really do want to read it, but I know that I’d be giving up the reading time for three or four other books in order to do so, and there are so many books that I want to (or have to) read right now.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I am most interested in your French project. If you have any titles decided on in advance (Canadian or otherwise — and you’ll find some interesting ones in that bookstore), could you post them? Or when you start reading them? I’d like to try to keep close to up to date and be informed enough to comment.

    I’ve sent Alison a note asking for comment on this site. One of her emails grouched about the bad editing of the book (not surprising given its length) and I’m hoping she will speak to that.

  16. Rob Says:

    Calling it a “project” is a bit of an overstatement, I’m afraid. I’m just thinking of reading a couple of French or France-related books while I’m over there. I’ll probably have a poke through the TBR pile before I go, put together a couple of titles, and add one or two from the Abbey Bookshop when I’m there. I’ll let you know if I land on any particular titles. (If they have Barnacle Love, I’ll certainly pick that one up, and having a bit of a soft spot for historical crime fiction, I’ll be reading Louis Bayard’s The Black Tower, based on Eugène François Vidocq.)

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Now that LeClezio has won the Nobel Prize, you probably should consider him. I will admit I have never heard of him — but the coverage sparks my interest. Maybe your trip is well timed, from a literary point of view.

  18. Rob Says:

    Quite right—I’ll have to see what’s available in English.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Chapters in Canada only has The Mexican Dream and The Round — interestingly a third title became sold out while I was trying to order. I have ordered the other two. I suspect you may have to head off to a very good used book store — or count on a Paris connection but I’m willing to bet the Prize will mean others will get there before you.

  20. Tom C Says:

    The shops are full of this one now (at least where I live). I’m rather put off by the fact that the real C of S Vedran Smailovic objected so much to the fictionalisation of his life.

  21. Rob Says:

    I know what you mean about V.S. The cellist himself actually has a very small part in the novel, being more of a symbol than a character, but it’s still unfortunate. As Kevin says above, though, I think the publishers really put their foot in it by putting him on the cover. I can see how the chain of communication might have got distorted to the point where somebody in the marketing department might have thought that was appropriate, but somebody should have known better.

  22. David Says:

    I think this is a great novel, but it can be even better if it follows a series of adventures focusing on a specific character like in the novel Life of Pi. Steven Galloway seems to have the capability to write a great novel that could involve three books in a series like the Harry Potters all based on a fictional characters journey in a war torn world.

  23. David Says:

    I wander if Steven Galloway will read my little suggestion?

    Might even be convinced to write a book like that.

  24. Sal Says:

    Hey guys. Im here because I need some help.I have an assignment coming up next week, and I need to find a movie which relates to The Cellist of Sarajevo. I was wondering if anyone of you guys could help. I would really appreciate it. Thank You 🙂

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