The Cellist of Sarajevo

This book is generally what I expected – an emotional , powerful book that focuses on personal stories to amplify the sights and sounds of war. However, I found myself getting impatient with the book, because of its repetition and an ending that seemed a little too predictable.

The book focuses on three main characters: a sniper who calls herself Arrow; a baker named Dragan who miraculously still has a job; and a father, Kenan who ventures out every few days into dangerous streets to get water for his family and neighbour.  They are all loosely connected to each other through a cellist who plays the same sad song in a war-torn street every day for 22 days – one day for every person he saw killed while waiting in line for bread. The cellist is based on a real musician, Vedran Smailović who played his cello during the early days of the siege of Sarajevo.

The book deliberately stays away from the politics, racial tensions and reasons behind the war. The army who is firing at the residents of Sarajevo are constantly referred to as the ‘men in the hills’ and the races of people, whether they are Muslim, Serbian, Bosnian, etc. are never mentioned. The book shows how the people from Sarajevo are just normal city dwellers who were previously living in a modern, thriving, urban place. There are descriptions of the earlier functioning transit system and the Olympic stadium used in the 1984 Games which has since turned into a graveyard. These sections stuck with me because I can’t imagine how a modern city, such as my hometown Vancouver, where the 2010 Games were just held, can turn into a war-hell.

Some paragraphs are powerful, but there is a lot of repetition when describing the war. I wanted to get sucked in, and in a way I did – I read this book in less than a day – but I felt like I tumbled through it just waiting for the last shoe to drop. There are a few too many sections that describe how harrowing it is to cross the street, the buildings that are ruined, and rhetorical questions about ‘who will rebuild the city.’ I got impatient with the descriptions that got repetitive throughout the book.

The ending of the book ties together the underlying hopefulness that the cellist represents and looks forward to the time when people put down their guns. I found the ending was almost ‘too-neat’ as it ties up all 3 characters into people who have grown, but who will never be the same.

I recommend this book to anyone that wants to understand this war a bit more, and what I love about these kinds of books is similar to what Yaan Martel said in his letter to Stephen Harper: “It does the work of a good fiction: it transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding.” However, maybe because of all the hype and everything I had already heard about this story, it just didn’t enchant me like I expected.