Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway, Atlantic 2008, first published in Australia, 2008.  I read this because I was very taken with Sarajevo when significant other and I were visiting Europe's capitals.  We were there in March for his birthday, a long weekend, and it snowed the whole time, making our footfalls soft.  The city was so very quiet.  The people who lived there seemed to tread lightly, and their footprints disappeared behind them in the snow.  We stood on the bridge at the spot where the twentieth century started, when Gavrilo Princip shot dead the Archduke Ferdinand and his pregnant wife.  We looked  up at the hills from where the city was shelled, day after day, week after week and month after month.  We looked at the bullet holes in the buildings.  We heard about the burning of the National Library, and we were served drinks by girls with pink cheeks and shy, gentle smiles.

The siege of Sarajevo lasted nearly four years.  In the 1990s.  In Europe.  Even in those pre-low-cost-flight days Sarajevo was less than four hours from London.  We could never say Bosnia was a faraway country of which we knew little.  Although we did not know it well.

Steven Galloway is a Canadian, and I do not know much about him, but perhaps importantly, he is not a European, and as such has less reason to feel guilty.  Because guilt is what this book made me feel.  And shame, at my own self-importance.  I was going to change the world, oh yes I was, in Reading politics.  Pedestrianisation was going to make us free.  All this was going on in Europe, and I didn't really care.  I had never been to Yugoslavia.  I worked then at BBC Monitoring in Reading, and we saw the media dispatches come in.  One time I went from work to the Civic Offices in Reading and was talking to political colleagues about what had been happening in what was rapidly becoming the former Yugoslavia.  They didn't care.  One of them said laconically "Oh yeah.  I've been on holiday there."

The Cellist of Sarajevo is almost unbearably tense and affecting to read.  The conceit of it is the man who goes out into the street every afternoon and plays his cello, in defiance of the bullets and shells and the men in the hills.  People come out to listen, and some of them put flowers at his feet.  "He was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra.  That was what he knew how to be... He gave to the people who came to listen what he loved most in the world." (p. 4).  The book is written sparely and cleanly.  "She dresses in silence, picks up her rifle and closes the door to the apartment." (p. 99). The start of a chapter, but could, or should, have been the first line of the book.  Perhaps readers know of great first lines.  I think I would like to start collecting them.

The shelling and burning of the National Library in Sarajevo: "For days afterwards, the ash of a million books floated down on to the city like snow".  There is sadness, and kindness, and slaughter.  "He still can't believe it happened.  He hopes he will never be able to.". This is several stories, about the lives of ordinary Sarajevo people during the siege.  The causes and the reasons for the fighting and the siege are not mentioned, as people surely did not when under siege.  Only on page 253 are "the defenders" (those within the city fighting for its survival) mentioned for the first time.

It is about death and about grief, as books about war must be.

"Then there are the things one doesn't mention about the dead.  It will not be said that he had a quick temper, or that he cheated at his monthly card game.  He was cheap.  When drunk he was cruel.  None of this will ever be said again, has simply vanished from existence.  But these are the things that make a death something to be mourned.  It's not just a disappearance of flesh." (p. 249)

When you say to people that we have had a war in Europe, within the past 20 years, with massacres and rapes and burning buildings and bombings, with Europeans killing Europeans, some of them do not know what you mean.  They really have forgotten the war in Yugoslavia, if they ever thought much about it at all.  The ones who do know about it say "Yes, but", though somehow the "but" never really comes.

For shame, all of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Will buy.