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The Cellist of SarajevoThe Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“He knows the sniper will fire again, but he isn’t afraid. At this moment fear doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as bravery. There are no heroes, no villains, no cowards. There’s what he can do, and what he can’t. There’s right and wrong and nothing else. The world is binary. Shading will come later.”

It is as if I have read this book before. The story, the people within it, their strife seems so very familiar, so very ‘close’, that all through the book I couldn’t shake off that feeling of deja vu. I see within it echoes from every war novel/ film I have ever come across. From the first lyrical chapter right through to its devastating end, ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’ is a fictional masterpiece. Do not let the leanness of the prose fool you, nor the sparsity of its characters, for each sentence may at first feel like a random spray of shrapnel, but it is far from it. Every point Galloway makes, his observations about the ‘war machine’, the blood-crazed generals, the ‘men-on-the-hills’, their victims and the unsung heroes in the midst of this war-torn city all hit the bullseye. Like his character, the legendary sniper “Arrow”, Galloway never misses his literary mark.

“A weapon does not decide whether or not to kill. A weapon is a manifestation of a decision that has already been made.”

Galloway’s aim is not to show war in its’ terrible mechanical glory, but rather to humanise it as much as he can. War is a difficult concept to understand; however the siege of Sarajevo is even harder, as the city quite literally caved in on itself and Galloway makes this painfully clear to us as he leads our eye down to street-level. And it is here that we are made to understand the confusion and fright of ordinary people, through the geographical decimation of their home town.

The narrative structure is simple. It alternates between three characters: Dragan (a baker), Kenan (husband and father of two) and Arrow (a young student-turned-sniper) and each tells a different side to the conflict. With Kenan we make the deadly journey to the only water supply in the city, dodging the random bullets from the ‘men on the hills’ while Dragan picks his own perilous way across shell-shocked streets and mortared bridges to his job at the bakery. Both men feel like ants who constantly fear the shadow of the boot above them. ‘Arrow’ on the other hand allows the reader to access the mind behind the cross-hairs that threaten the citizens of Sarajevo. While she is determined not to become like the ‘men on the hills’, she is however haunted by the question of just exactly who it is that she is becoming.

At the midst of this chaos is the Cellist, who at 2 o’clock every day sits out in the street and plays an adagio for every person that was killed by a mortar attack as they lined up for bread one morning. Twenty-two people were killed; for 22 days he chooses to risk his life to honour the memory of those who died, by placing himself in full glare of the snipers.

Needless to say, there are some shocking scenes of death and mutilation. But Galloway deftly picks through the rubble of a wrecked city, pushing aside torn limbs and broken bodies to find the wonderous speck of humanity amongst all the horror. What he does unearth and hold out for all to see are the incredible acts of bravery that can only be the product of a still-beating heart, a heart which will only reveal itself in the challenging glare of death.

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