HAPPENED TODAY - On December 7, 1887, the pianist and composer Ernst Toch was born in Leopoldstadt

Steven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo

“It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expanded in size brought into focus by time and velocity. There was a moment before impact that was the last instant of things as they were. Then the visible world exploded “.

During the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, on the night between 25 and 26 August 1993, a bombing destroyed the historical National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. After that, among the destroyed houses, every day, and for 22 days, a solitary cellist played Albinoni’s Adagio to remember the 22 victims of a mortar shot falling among the people in a queue, in front of a bakery. That gesture, begun as an epitaph and an act of piety for the victims, has instead succeeded in representing an act of rebellion against brutality and a vital push to believe in courage and in a possible existence that is far from the human. A memory that may be stronger than any absolute impoverishment, external but also internal, created to survive, not to die twice.

For this reason, perhaps he chose to play the Adagio of Albinoni, a composition brought back to life by the musicologist Remo Giazzotto after having found the scores among other rubble of another bombardment, that of the Library of Dresden: another example of the link between destruction and reconstruction.

The hero of the book is, therefore, a figure that really existed. Vedran Smailovic is a Bosnian cellist, who played for a long time in the Philharmonic Orchestra of Sarajevo before the war, and now lives in Northern Ireland. During the war, in Sarajevo, he often performed acts of daily heroism, such as playing for free at funerals, regardless of the risk posed by the presence of Serbian snipers.

In the novel to the life of the cellist and three more lives are intertwined. The lives of three characters who seek a life that defeats fear, in different ways, so as not to die before dying. Kenan challenges the sniper trajectories to procure the necessary water for the life of his family and his neighbor. Draga challenges death to keep his job as a baker. Freccia, transformed by the war in everything and in the name, become a sniper, defends his fellow citizens by the blows of those who are posted on the hills and defends the cellist Sarajevo. These three characters are surprised and attracted by the sound of the cello awakening in them with force feelings of life and hope, in stark contrast to the crudity of the reality that surrounds them. The warm and human voice of the cello pushes them to remember a Sarajevo that no longer exists and let them think to a Sarajevo that can be different.

The narration of the book uses prose that is not only realistic but raw. Through the stories of the three characters, invented but possible, a plot of relationships, events, and feelings hanging between the trajectory of the sniper shots posted on the hills and the instincts of survival instinct that pushes to the essential functions of everyday life, but now almost impossible. New humanity born from a war: people overwhelmed by emotions, poised between destroyed values and the search for others, and new ones, to give meaning to suffering and build hope. And the cello, in fact, gives voice to suffering so as not to stifle hope. A subtle thread of notes seems to tie the story of Vedran Smailovic to that of two other cellists who preferred the stage of history to that of the theater, to rejoice with history and suffer together with the history and destiny of men.

The Sarajevo cellist played in the rubble of the Sarajevo Library during the conflict of the former Yugoslavia. M. Rostropovich accompanied with the cello the fall of the Berlin Wall on 11 November 1989 symbolizing a rebirth, new freedom. And even today Karim Wasfi, former director of the Iraq Symphony-National Orchestra, gives voice to the ruins of the city of Baghdad, to transform destruction and hatred into “messages of peace, beauty, compassion, understanding, and integration”.

Steven Galloway is a Canadian novelist that taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia for many years.  His most important novels are Finnie Walsh (2000) and Ascension (2003).


The Cellist of Sarajevo
Atlantic Books (January 1, 2009)
pp. 240
ISBN-10: 8804579188
ISBN-13: 978-8804579182