Faculty Essays

When Civilization Crumbles…

Written by Michael Ortiz on June 30, 2015.

A review of Steven Galloway’s Novel “The Cellist of Sarajevo” by Mr. Michael Ortiz


Last year, I included The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway in the reading list for my AP English class after learning about the novel through a book club I have been part of since 1999. Gerry and Germana Mitchell, long-time friends of the school, and parents of seven Heights graduates, graciously host the club once a month or so at their home in Bethesda. We started with Dante’s Inferno, and have had a wonderful time over the years talking about classics or bestsellers with a glass of wine, some shared insights and questions, and not a few laughs. Over the years, selections from this book club have acquainted me with other fine novels that I have incorporated into my classes.


The Cellist of Sarajevo opens in the early months of the longest urban siege in modern warfare, lasting from April 1992 to February 1996. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from then Yugoslavia, Serbians— intent on creating a greater Serbia that included these two provinces—encircled the city of Sarajevo with 18,000 troops in the surrounding hills. The United Nations estimates that 10,000 people were killed in the conflict, and 56,000 wounded, with an average of 329 shells hitting the city per day. Galloway, in his afterward, notes that the record high for shelling occurred on July 23, 1993; on that day 3,777 shells rained down on the city. The commander of the siege, Ratko Mladic, the chief of staff for the Bosnian Serb army, is today a fugitive with millions of dollars being offered for his capture by the United States and Serbia. Radovan Karadžic, a Bosnian Serb politician, after twelve years on the run, was arrested in July 2008, and is on trial for war crimes by an international tribunal.


The conflict only ceased after a United Nations force led by American air assets, bombed the aggressive Serbians into peace talks that largely settled the conflict in 1995, under what is now known as the Dayton Accords. The break-up of the Yugoslav state, however, unleashed ancestral hatreds amid the multi-ethnic provinces that the world had not seen since the Second World War. Into this hellish brew of hatred and wanton killing, Galloway sets his novel, wisely focusing on the dramatic implications of a single day of day-to-day living in a Sarajevo encircled by terror and fire.


On May 27, 1992, at four o’clock in the afternoon, Serbian mortar shells killed twenty-two and wounded seventy more people waiting in line to buy bread at a market on Vase Miskina Street. Shortly afterwards, Vedran Smailovic, a well-known local cellist, unfolded a plastic chair on the spot in the market where the mortars hit, and for twenty-two days played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor in honor of the slain civilians.


This is the narrative thread that Galloway weaves through his novel. He follows three characters through these twenty-two days: Arrow, a former Sarajevo Olympic marksman, now a sniper for the besieged city; Kenan, a middle-aged man who is seeking water for his family; and Dragan, whose wife and son escaped on one of the last buses to leave Sarajevo, and who is prowling about the city for bread to bring back to his sister and her husband with whom he now lives. The cellist himself is given only the opening chapter, but his performance dominates the plot as each character must face the awful realities of a city whose civilized habits of existence have crumbled alongside its burning buildings and mortar-pocked streets.


In their search for the basic necessities of life (bread, water, safety) these characters each meet the cellist, playing an Adagio in the war-weary market. Galloway makes profound use of this singular event by mentioning that Albinoni’s Adagio was actually reconstructed from four bars of a bass line from a manuscript found among the remains of the firebombed city of Dresden in 1945. An Italian musicologist reconstructed a larger piece from the damaged manuscript, one that hardly resembles Albinoni’s work but is also undeniably a masterpiece. As such, it becomes for the cellist and the other characters in the novel, “an instrument of deliverance.” In the course of the novel there are many moments that cry for deliverance, including a horrendous mortar attack on a line of people filling bottles with water from a local brewery.


Arrow, the sniper, is sent on a mission to protect the cellist by a Bosnian commander so he can finish his twenty-two Adagios. Watching through her rifle scope, she can see him play his cello with skill and grace: “Arrow let the slow pulse of vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears…The men on the hills, the men in the city, none of them had the right to do the things they’d done….It could not have happened….it could all have stopped. It was possible. The men on the hills didn’t have to be murderers…She didn’t have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.”


The sheer, gratuitous, transcendent beauty of the Adagio reminds her of the freedom we all have to become what we choose. What we must never do, Galloway’s novel suggests, is to pretend that our dehumanizing choices are fatefully fallen upon us, to forget the irreducible core of our moral freedom, or to embrace courses of action while simultaneously denying responsibility. The beauty of the Adagio is a rebuke to the injustice of the aggressors. It is also an image of renewal promised to those who reject hating those who do hateful, unspeakable things. It is an act of hope.


Galloway’s novel is a fictionalized account of a civilized pause in a contemporary, four-year long reign of terror. The story ends on a note of sacrifice and noble refusal to be part of a cycle of destruction, even in one’s last hour. While the novel is a welcome addition to my AP English class, it has some minor imperfections that stand out and perhaps diminish its impact on a reader seeking more answers to the story’s implicit questions (for every story is a quest, a seeking of something).


For instance, in a city of churches and mosques, Galloway has not a single character in his novel even think about God, eternity, or the soul. This seems rather unlikely, even if we accept the fact that Sarajevo was a westernized, secular city when the siege broke out. The punishing depravation that the victims went through hardly lends probability to the air-tight secularity of the novel. I suspect Galloway did this because his primary audience was not Sarajevan Muslims (the majority of Bosnians killed or wounded) but a western audience that is used to seeing reality as if there were no God, no soul, no eternity. While he delves deeply into the mystery of human depravity and the quiet miracles of heroism amid life under a prolonged siege, his characters tend to lack depth in regard to their ultimate fates, and the perils they face seem somehow diminished.


There is also the claim, perhaps made as much by the actual cellist of Sarajevo as by the novel, that artistic beauty has the power to deliver us from “the men on the hills”, from those who unleash their hatred with violence. Can an Adagio be a redoubt against the culture of death? The Cellist of Sarajevo, with its excellent plotting, and subtle images of human suffering and triumph, presents us with some hope that it can. Its characters are lifted up from their despair by the cellist’s music and begin to imagine how life is not something that just happens, but is also something we shape by our fidelity or infidelity to goodness itself.


As with many contemporary novels, this one claims a power to transcend the fallen world by the artistry of the musician, yet Orpheus, in ancient myth, tried to defeat death with his music, and failed. Yet maybe all that was left in that war-torn city was a cellist’s song. Perhaps this was what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was thinking of when he wrote: “Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power, and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. And so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together…and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.”


Certainly Sarajevo saw plenty of truth and goodness crushed by explosive shells and gunfire. Steven Galloway has caught something of the mystery of the cellist’s art in that burning city of the last decade of the twentieth century, and made it come alive again in his finely imagined novel.