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The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo

By Steven Galloway

PBR Book Review:

This is a factionalized account of true events that occurred during the siege of Sarajevo. After witnessing the death of 22 people, killed by mortar shells while waiting on line for bread, a cellist, risks his life to play Albinoin’s Adagio for the next 22 days to honor them. Galloway presents a vivid in-depth picture of living in war torn city. He does this by following the daily routine of several people and examining their thoughts over the course of the three weeks the cellist played. Through Kenan and Dagnan we witness the difficulty and danger of obtaining water or crossing a street to go to work; their fear of death from opposition snipers is palpable and not easily forgotten. Their thoughts as they rationalize the process, hope for a better future and long for the past are haunting. My favorite character by far is Arrow. She is complex and ruthless, harden by war but very human. As an expert sniper her job is to protect the cellist and when she takes center stage, the tension and suspense builds. Although the style of the book is literary, at times it reads more like a documentary so it may not be a book for everyone.

Book Club Talking Points:

This book brings to light the atrocities the human race is capable of, provoking thought on the senselessness of war and the capacity of man to kill another human being. Arrow’s character will spark the most debate. Her thoughts as she seeks to avenge her fellow townspeople are as conflicted as her actions. For me the hardest concept to grasp was the fact that the story is based on true events. The cellist, although not developed to a great extent in the book, was without a doubt integral to the story, especially if you try to define the mindset necessary to do what he did.

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*Author Website: http://www.stevengalloway.com/

*Other Books by Same Author: "Finnie Walsh", "Ascension, "

Awards:

FINALIST 2009 - BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
NOMINEE 2009 - Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award - Fiction Book of the Year
NOMINEE 2008 - Scotiabank Giller Prize

*Discussion Questions



1. What effect does the constant confrontation of war and occupation have on each narrator? Does suffering, violence and loss ever become normalized for them? What is it like to live in this kind of anarchy—especially when symbols of peace and power have been extinguished (the eternal flame from WWII, the Kosovo Olympic stadium now used as a burial ground)? And what does it mean to have the color, beauty, and vibrancy of music and flowers (left behind for the cellist) introduced?

2. How has life changed in the city since the arrival of the men on the hills? What resources, both physical and mental, are the four characters in the book using to help them survive? What is involved in day-to-day living? How would you fare under these same conditions—and what would be your greatest challenges?

3. Each chapter in the novel is told through the lens of one of the four main characters (including the cellist) in the story. How does this strategy color our reading? How might our experience be different if told in first person? If it were told in a more journalistic way?

4. How do each of the narrators (Arrow, Dragan, Kenan) view their fellow citizens? How do they each look upon their struggles, choices, and their attitudes? What makes them not give up on each other? Does Kenan’s classification of the “three types of people” (144) ring true to you?

5. Do you think the author intends for the reader to be sympathetic to Arrow’s life and career trajectory? What prevents (or encourages) us from fully engaging, trusting, relating to her? Do you think war forces everyone to compromise something in themselves—their attitude, their moral compass?

6. What are the goals of “the men on the hill”? What exactly is it they are trying to destroy? What do they come to represent for the main characters—and what separates them from Arrow?

7. In the beginning of the novel, Dragan is said to avoid his friends and coworkers because “the destruction of the living is too much for him,” Arrow assumes a new name to distance herself from her role as a sniper, and Kenan takes refuge in his new ritual of obtaining water for his family. How have the three used rituals as ways to cope with their fear of what is happening in the city? At the end of the book, do you feel that their experiences of the cellist’s performances have changed how they deal with the danger around them? In what way?

8. What force does music have upon the war torn state—and what powers does it have over the lives of the characters? (For Kenan, Arrow, and Dragan? For the cellist himself?) Do you find yourself relating to the power of the cellist’s performances? Are there parallel moments in your life where you also experienced such sudden awakening, or realization?

9. “Sarajevo was a great city for walking.” How does the mapping of the landscape—the physical and psychic layout of the city—affect the narrative? How does our intimacy with this map affect our experience of the story?

10. In one of his early chapters, Kenan is particularly disturbed by the interruption and shelled state of the tram’s service (“The war will not be over until the trams run again”) and the destruction of the National Library (“the most visible manifestation of a society he was proud of”)—representing for him basic civilization. What signs, services, and signals do you consider pillars of civilization?

11. Why do you think the sniper avoids taking his shot at the cellist—especially when he has such ample opportunity?

12. Why does Dragan take such drastic measures to prevent the dead man’s body from being filmed by the journalist? What does the author suggest through this as a lesson for the living? What are we to do to prevent the horror of war from becoming commonplace, something to tune our televisions out from?

13. Were you surprised by Arrow’s final act of protest? Do you think she was ultimately able to reclaim herself, her identity? Do you think she succeeded

Book Summary
From the Publisher: This brilliant novel with universal resonance tells the story of three people trying to survive in a city rife with the extreme fear of desperate times, and of the sorrowing cellist who plays undaunted in their midst. One day a shell lands in a bread line and kills twenty-two people as the cellist watches from a window in his flat. He vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the twenty-two victims. The Adagio had been re-created from a fragment after the only extant score was firebombed in the Dresden Music Library, but the fact that it had been rebuilt by a different composer into something new and worthwhile gives the cellist hope. Meanwhile, Kenan steels himself for his weekly walk through the dangerous streets to collect water for his family on the other side of town, and Dragan, a man Kenan doesn’t know, tries to make his way towards the source of the free meal he knows is waiting. Both men are almost paralyzed with fear, uncertain when the next shot will land on the bridges or streets they must cross, unwilling to talk to their old friends of what life was once like before divisions were unleashed on their city. Then there is “Arrow,” the pseudonymous name of a gifted female sniper, who is asked to protect the cellist from a hidden shooter who is out to kill him as he plays his memorial to the victims. In this beautiful and unforgettable novel, Steven Galloway has taken an extraordinary, imaginative leap to create a story that speaks powerfully to the dignity and generosity of the human spirit under extraordinary duress.
 
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