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.