Thursday, April 16, 2009

By the Chapter, Day 4 - The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

It's time for Day 4 of By the Chapter. Marcia and I have been discussing The Cellist of Sarajevo - to catch up on the conversation, read Marcia's Monday post, my Tuesday post, and Marcia's Wednesday post.

Today, the conversation continues here, with more of my thoughts on the novel.

On May 27, 1992, in Sarajevo, a mortar shell blasted into an innocent group of people waiting in line to buy bread. In mourning for the 22 people who were killed in that attack, cellist Vedran Smailovic' sat at the site, with his cello, and played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor every day for the next 22 days. This couragous, yet startlingly simple act inspired Steven Galloway to write The Cellist of Sarajevo. The title character is loosely based on Smailovic', and performs the same act of courage. Here is a link to Albioni's Adagio - it is one of the most haunting pieces of music I know, and perfectly sets the stage for the events in the novel.

Since I posted on Tuesday, I've read about 3/4 of the novel, and frankly, not that much has happened. Dragan is still trying to find the right time to cross the street. Kenan is still trying to make it back home with water for his family. For Arrow, a few more days have passed - she has now been assigned the nearly impossible task of keeping the cellist safe from the enemy sniper rumored to have targeted him. Strangely, this lack of action-packed-ness doesn't make the novel seem to move slowly - there is an intensity that comes with knowing that each second might be one of the characters' last.

In her post yesterday, Marcia talked about how the mental geography of the characters has been changed - that each character has had to carve out a new way of thinking about the world. I think that is such an important insight into this novel. Each of the characters is forced to literally put aside their old lives - not just their former jobs and friends, but the way they looked at the world - in order to find a way to survive in their new realities. This novel is about all the little ways they find to survive - both physically, by watching for the snipers and finding new routes around the city, and emotionally, by creating a way for themselves to stay sane in the face of such horrors.

I think the aspect of the book that is gripping me the most right now is how each of these characters has, in spite of overwhelming odds, made the choice to keep going. Each of them, every day, is faced with the possibility that their life will end. Arrow could be spotted and shot by an enemy sniper. Dragan has to cross the most dangerous street in Sarajevo, where he sees people killed every day. Kenan knows it would be easier to just give up, stop worrying about water for his neighbor and family, and just lay down his burden for a time. And yet, each of them chooses to keep going - to hang on to their humanity, and hang on for the time when this war will be over. This is vividly illustrated in this conversation between Dragan and Emira, while waiting on the street:

"The world will never allow that. They'll have to help us sooner or later," she says. He's not sure from her tone of voice if she believes what she says. He doesn't know how she could. They must both see the same city disintegrating around them. "No one is coming." His voice is harsher that he means it to be. "We're here on our own, and no one's coming to help us. Don't you know that?" Emina looks down, and fastens the top two buttons on her coat. She puts her hands in her pockets. After a while she says, very quietly, "I know no one is coming. I just don't want to believe it."

Later, when Emina tells him about a kindness she did for a neighbor, she says:

"Isn't that how we're supposed to behave? Isn't that how we used to be?" "I don't know," Dragan says. "I can't remember if we were like that, or just think we were. It seems impossible to remember what things were like." And he suspects this is what the men on the hills want. They would, of course, like to kill them all, but if they can't, they would like to make them forget how they used to be, how civilized people act. He wonders how long it will take before they succeed.

I find their struggle to retain their humanity, and their hope, so powerful. I am reading this book slowly, on purpose. It's so easy for me to rip through a novel - I WANT to sit with this one for a while, to let it really get into my head. I think it will be worth the wait.

Don't forget to stop back here tomorrow, as well as at The Printed Page, where Marcia and I will both be giving our final thoughts on The Cellist of Sarajevo.


Marcia said...

Great post. I loved the way you expressed what these characters are going through. Though time passes very slowly in this book a lot happens mentally for these characters. If you thought the conversation between Dragan and Emina had a lot to say just wait until you get to each characters final chapter. Their mental geography shifts yet again.

I don't usually re-read books but I think I could pick this one up again right now and find something that I missed the first time through. There is so much about this book that would be great conversation pieces. I think this book would be a great book club selection.

Because of the power of this book I'm letting Kenan, Dragan and Arrow speak for themselves tomorrow.

Zibilee said...

I really like that you are dissecting this book and writing a deep analysis of each section. Your posts have really made me want to read this book. Even though there is not much action going on, it sounds like a really good book. Thanks!