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The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
A spare and haunting, wise and beautiful novel about war and the endurance of the human spirit and the subtle ways individuals reclaim their humanity. In a city under siege, four people whose lives have been upended are ultimately reminded of what it is to be human. From his window, a musician sees twenty-two of his friends and neighbors waiting in a breadline. Then, in a flash, they are killed by a mortar attack. In an act of defiance, the man picks up his cello and decides to play at the site of the shelling for twenty-two days, honoring their memory. Elsewhere, a young man leaves home to collect drinking water for his family and, in the face of danger, must weigh the value of generosity against selfish survivalism. A third man, older, sets off in search of bread and distraction and instead runs into a long-ago friend who reminds him of the city he thought he had lost, and the man he once was. As both men are drawn into the orbit of cello music, a fourth character - a young woman, a sniper - holds the fate of the cellist in her hands. As she protects him with her life, her own army prepares to challenge the kind of person she has become. A novel of great intensity and power, and inspired by a true story, The Cellist of Sarajevo poignantly explores how war can change one's definition of humanity, the effect of music on our emotional endurance, and how a romance with the rituals of daily life can itself be a form of resistance.
Steven Galloway, a Canadian author, was born in Vancouver and raised in Kamloops, both in British Columbia. He attended the University College of the Cariboo and the University of British Columbia. His debut novel, Finnie Walsh (2000), was nominated for the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. His second novel, Ascension (2003), was nominated for the BC Book Prizes’ Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and has been translated into numerous languages.
His third novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008), was heralded as “the work of an expert” by the Guardian, and has become an international bestseller and sold in 20 countries. Galloway has taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia and taught and mentored creative writing in The Writer’s Studio, at the writing and publishing program at Simon Fraser University.
1. What effect does the constant confrontation of war and occupation have on each narrator? Does suffering, violence and loss ever become normalized for them? What is it like to live in this kind of anarchy—especially when symbols of peace and power have been extinguished (the eternal flame from WWII, the Kosovo Olympic stadium now used as a burial ground)? And what does it mean to have the color, beauty, and vibrancy of music and flowers (left behind for the cellist) introduced?
2. How has life changed in the city since the arrival of the men on the hills? What resources, both physical and mental, are the four characters in the book using to help them survive? What is involved in day-to-day living? How would you fare under these same conditions—and what would be your greatest challenges?
3. Each chapter in the novel is told through the lens of one of the four main characters (including the cellist) in the story. How does this strategy color our reading? How might our experience be different if told in first person? If it were told in a more journalistic way?
4. How do each of the narrators (Arrow, Dragan, Kenan) view their fellow citizens? How do they each look upon their struggles, choices, and their attitudes? What makes them not give up on each other? Does Kenan’s classification of the “three types of people” (144) ring true to you?
5. Do you think the author intends for the reader to be sympathetic to Arrow’s life and career trajectory? What prevents (or encourages) us from fully engaging, trusting, relating to her? Do you think war forces everyone to compromise something in themselves—their attitude, their moral compass?
6. What are the goals of “the men on the hill”? What exactly is it they are trying to destroy? What do they come to represent for the main characters—and what separates them from Arrow?
7. In the beginning of the novel, Dragan is said to avoid his friends and coworkers because “the destruction of the living is too much for him,” Arrow assumes a new name to distance herself from her role as a sniper, and Kenan takes refuge in his new ritual of obtaining water for his family. How have the three used rituals as ways to cope with their fear of what is happening in the city? At the end of the book, do you feel that their experiences of the cellist’s performances have changed how they deal with the danger around them? In what way?
8. What force does music have upon the war torn state—and what powers does it have over the lives of the characters? (For Kenan, Arrow, and Dragan? For the cellist himself?) Do you find yourself relating to the power of the cellist’s performances? Are there parallel moments in your life where you also experienced such sudden awakening, or realization?
9. “Sarajevo was a great city for walking.” How does the mapping of the landscape—the physical and psychic layout of the city—affect the narrative? How does our intimacy with this map affect our experience of the story?
10. In one of his early chapters, Kenan is particularly disturbed by the interruption and shelled state of the tram’s service (“The war will not be over until the trams run again”) and the destruction of the National Library (“the most visible manifestation of a society he was proud of”)—representing for him basic civilization. What signs, services, and signals do you consider pillars of civilization?
11. Why do you think the sniper avoids taking his shot at the cellist—especially when he has such ample opportunity?
12. Why does Dragan take such drastic measures to prevent the dead man’s body from being filmed by the journalist? What does the author suggest through this as a lesson for the living? What are we to do to prevent the horror of war from becoming commonplace, something to tune our televisions out from?
13. Were you surprised by Arrow’s final act of protest? Do you think she was ultimately able to reclaim herself, her identity? Do you think she succeeded?
Reproduced with permission from litlovers.com