Tuesday, October 06, 2009


The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway, Riverhead Books, 2008, 231 pp

Imagine an account of human history told by stringing together all the incidences of cities under siege. Ever since mankind began to congregate in densely populated urban settings (and I am too lazy at the moment to look up when that was), we have been subject to siege by enemies. In my imaginary collection of siege tales, The Cellist of Sarajevo would have a place.

I read this book during the week of wildfires that raged just north and east of my home this September. During the day, smoke-filled air filtered the sunlight to an eerie orange. At night we could see flames on the hillsides just a few miles away. I had friends ordered to evacuate their homes and others who lived hour to hour as they waited for such orders.

Yet I could sit at my computer and read the hourly updates on LATimes.com with never a worry about food, water or safety. Which was strikingly similar to the way America experienced the Bosnian War.

Steven Galloway's account of just a few weeks in Sarajevo, told through the eyes of three characters, told me of their sufferings much as my friends in Tujunga, La Crescenta, La Canada and Pasadena, told me the stories of the wildfires. For my friends, it was only for a couple of weeks and not one of them died or even lost a home. In Sarajevo it went on for almost four years.

The author is not a Bosnian, he is a Canadian. I generally disdain stories written by Western white people about other races and cultures, but he is a good enough writer and more importantly a good enough listener, to have taken the stories told to him by survivors of the siege and create a moving sense of those times. As he weaves between his three characters, a bakery worker who managed to go to work everyday, a father who had to walk miles through sniper fire just to get water for his family, and a young female sharpshooter, we discover that courage, humanity and love can triumph over fear, dehumanization and hatred. The cellist who played for 22 days in a row to memorialize the same number of fallen friends and neighbors is the symbol of all that.

It was almost too much for me. I found that I would never want to be in that much danger and doubted that I would stand up to it as well as these characters. Sometimes I could hardly bear to read another page, but from the security of my bed or sofa, I felt that reading about it was the least I could do.

(This book is available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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