Feb 6th, 2012

Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

By Nick Robison

Since I spend about 2.5 hours on the train each day (not counting the time waiting in the station) I’ve had the chance to do quite a bit of reading. For a change of pace I’ve been reading a lot of fiction and catching up on some popular series and recommendations from people in the past. As part of this blog is to improve my writing skills (which are quite lacking at times) I’ve decided to write reviews of each book that I finish, it may be that you find my writings so compelling that you dash out immediately to pick up a copy or ban the book from your person entirely. Indeed, the pen (or appropriate digital substitute) may be mightier then the sword.

The Cellist of Sarajevo Book Cover

The first book in my reading series is The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, I found this one based on a recommendation from Paul Randal’s blog. Paul is a legend in the SQL Server community, being the guy who wrote most of the storage engine including the infammous CHECKDB. He also travels more then anyone else I know of and is an extremely avid reader. He mentioned this book and I found it on Amazon (click the image for a direct link) for around $1 so I grabbed it.

That description may in fact be longer then the book itself, which is set in the later parts of the siege of Sarajevo and is a fictional telling of the story of Vedran Smailovic˙ who played his cello everyday at 4pm at the stop where a mortar round killed 22 people in front of a bakery. The book itself only lightly treats on the musician and instead focuses on 3 other people loosely entwined by his actions. The sniper who is assigned to protect him, an old man who works at another bakery, and a young father on his journey to find clean water for his family. Through each of their stories the reader is given a glimpse into a world in which normalcy and safety have been wrenched away. Each character is forced to wrestle with the fact that the world they once knew is no more, and each much come to terms with that meaning individually. A common thread between the characters is the conscious decision to deny the war the chance to take from them their humanity and dignity, whether that means performing in the same square for 22 days, or crossing the same bridge on the way to work in spite of the danger, each character must choose to live inspite of the world around them and no only honor the past, but hope for the future.

While I really enjoyed this book and recommend to most anyone as it’s a quite read and quite engaging, I had a few reservations. It’s important to keep in mind that all characters are fictional and though there really was a cellist whom the book is named after, Galloway’s character is entirely fictional. What this means, in practicality, is that there exists a level at which the thoughts of the characters feel contrived and unnatural. For example, when one character looks across a road the author launches into a 3-4 page description of the vast significance of this action, to him, everything is fraught with meaning, To paraphrase The Postal Service ‘there’s life in everyword, to the extent that it’s absurd,’ While I applaud the author for attempting to bring a dynamic and thought provoking portrait to a piece of history often overlooked in the world of literature, I can’t helping feeling disappointed, perhaps in myself, because honestly, I’m not that deep and thus it feels fake to place deep, insightful, realizations on traumatized characters in a war-zone. Especially when one continues to harp on the exhaustion of all involved. But then again, maybe that’s just me.

That last quibble aside, if you’re looking for an engrossing story that presents a world foreign to many people look no further then Galloway’s latest creation.

Verdict: Read, at some point