The Cellist of Sarajevo is a fictional account of four people during the siege of Sarajevo in the early ’90s. First, there is the cellist, who witnesses an attack that kills 22 people outside his window as they waited in line for bread. He decides that he will play at the spot of the attack for 22 days in honor of their deaths. Second, there is a middle-aged man named Kenan, who has to leave his house every couple days to collect water for his family. Third, an older man named Dragan wanders the streets, seeking out his daily ration of bread, and comes upon an old friend who helps him remember the city from before the war. And fourth is the story of Arrow, a countersniper who is put in charge of protecting the cellist’s life, at the same time her army turns against her. These four accounts, chapter by chapter, are woven together. The cellist himself only receives one chapter in the book, the first one, but his actions touch the lives of all the other characters.
This is a war book, but not like any other war book I’ve ever been exposed to. I don’t know who is fighting who. I don’t know anything about the Siege of Sarajevo. Even after reading the wikipedia article on it, I know very little. And this book does nothing in the way of enlightening me on who was on what side. Not that that’s a bad thing – actually, it was rather refreshing to keep politics, religion, etc out of the narrative. In the end, does it really matter who thought what and why they were fighting? No, it only matters that they fought, that people died, that innocent people died. This is a personal tale. It shows the horrors of war but also speaks to humanity. In the end, humanity is more important. War has this tendency to make everything grey and flat – there’s even a passage in the book that discusses this – but this book made people and places come alive again. Not through horror. This isn’t a book that is trying to use horror to get you to wake up to the evils of war. Not at all. There is more inspiration and hope in this book than in any other war book I’ve ever read, I believe.
I enjoyed it. I really did. I liked some sections more than others – I thought Arrow was fascinating, for example, while at one point I confused Kenan and Dragan’s stories for a moment and temporarily lost track of who was who – but overall, this was a far better book than I anticipated. It is precisely written, without narrative meant to shock; clear, descriptive, fast enough to want to keep reading but slow enough that you can take your time over it and think things out. I’ve compared modern thriller genres to eating fast food – I just feel sick afterwards – and using that metaphor, this was like a hot winter soup. Refreshing, fulfilling, not the most tasty thing I’ve ever eaten but certainly satisfying, and in the end, fortifying.
This is a story about people. Not heroes, not villains, just people, behaving like people behave, surviving how they can – both physically and emotionally. Keeping a balance between spiritual/emotional survival and staying physically alive. And while this wasn’t the most powerful thing I’ve ever read, it will certainly stick in my mind and stay there a long time. Highly recommended for anyone who would like to read something about war that doesn’t fall into any of the war genre categories out there.