Friday, 10 April 2009

The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway

Read: January 2008

“It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expanded in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There was a moment before impact that was the last instant of things as they were. Then the visible world exploded.”

Few novels begin with such a memorable paragraph. And this one is so memorable that Steven Galloway sees fit to use it three times in the opening chapter, building the tension, the reader scanning the page, eager to find out what will follow. It is a chapter worthy of any book: intriguing, full of careful characterisation and simple musical fervour. And that first paragraph is its herald and epitaph.

Because everything that follows is a disappointment. When we leave behind the world of the cellist and move out into the wider Sarajevo to meet other characters it all becomes a little bland and one paced. It turns out that the cellist is but the centrepiece of the novel, it is he whose existence brings out and clarifies the humanity of the other characters, but he himself is without voice or narrative.

The plot instead follows three characters as they go about the daily business of doing what they must to stay alive and remain as human as possible. We meet Arrow, the star of her university shooting team, before the war she had never shot to kill. Now the war has made a soldier of her and she must protect the cellist from enemy snipers, whatever the cost. All the while struggling to maintain her grip on normality, to remember that this is not who she is, that the situation is not as partisan as “us and them.”

Across the city, Kenan is on his way to the Brewery, to collect water from its underground well and carry it home across the city for his wife and children. Finally there is Dragan, travelling to eat at the bakery where he works, so as not to have to deplete his sister’s food supplies. On their way each faces the consistent knowledge that at any given time he may be fixed in the sight of a sniper in the hills, that every time he steps out into the road he is gambling with his life.

But despite this focus on three different characters, the major problem is that none of them has their own voice. They all speak with the voice of the author, each thinks the same essential thoughts, about the unpredictability, the futility, the impossibility of life during war. None of them ever thinks, does, or dreams the wrong thing, they are all ultimately stereotypes of the victims of war. They think the right, the profound thought, rarely the real one. It is as if they were already dead and this book is their eulogy, excluding all the things, including the negative, that went into making them really human. As a result they lie on the page two dimensional, bland, and uninteresting. Their stories each develop and in the process they question their existence, whether it is worth living this way, and make some decision – inspired by the cellists bravery – about how they will regain their humanity. Simple, predictable. And it is not that what they think is not interesting. It is, in a Paolo Coelho type way. For example:

“This is how she now believes life happens. One small thing at a time. A series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster. There are no grand moments where a person does or doesn’t perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way.”

Good passages, interesting, well paced. But when they sit one upon the next for page after page they begin to lose their power. It is a bit repetitive to have each character think exactly the same thing. And all these predictable emotions are taking place in the midst of the frightening unpredictability of a war zone.

What I want from is a character in a novel to be flawed, just like everyone is. I want characters like Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, capricious, self-deluded, full of quirks. Or like those in Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, cunning, unpredictable, diverse. Paragons of virtue hold no interest to me.

The Cellist of Sarajevo
is prescriptive rather than descriptive. We are always told what to think and believe about the war, the characters, the wholly horrible situation. Nothing is left to perception, to the readers interpretation, despite the novels repeated assurance that this is all life has been reduced to. And in its desperate assertion to stand for humanity in the face of the absurdity of war it often seems to trivialise it all.

Perhaps this all sounds too critical. After all The Cellist of Sarajevo is a well written book, full of insight and the quiet, everyday acts of life.

“Dragon knows he won’t ever be able to forget what has happened here. If the war ends, if life goes back to some semblance of how it once was, and he survives, he won’t be able to explain how. An explanation implies a logic, but there’s no logic to Sarajevo right now. Logic has left, and when it left it took order with it, and that was the end of civilisation. He still can’t believe it happened. He hopes he will never be able to.”

The plot is based loosely on real events during what was the longest city siege in the history of modern warfare, lasting almost four years. The cellist of the title, real name Verdan Smailovic, did actually appear in the street for twenty-two days, to serenade the dead with Albinono’s Adagio in G Minor. Perhaps this explains why the cellist is the most real of all the characters, despite only having 6 pages focused on him.

Steven Galloway has written a book which is the perfect reading club title. It will elicit discussion and debate from everyone who reads it, and will move them. It is easily readable, enjoyable and safe. Like Mister Pip, or The Kite Runner it brings into your home the stark reality of living in the face of war. And if it is a little simple, then what is wrong with that? Many, many people will truly enjoy this book, and will take from it increased understanding of the terrible suffering in the former Yugoslavia. It poses complex questions about humanity under attack, and offers a timely reminder to everyone that war, no matter what ends or means it is fought for, is never worth the cost.

6 out of 10

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