Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 28, 2009

The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008), by Steven Galloway

The Cellist of SarajevoSome years ago  I read The Impossible Country, by Brian Hall  The Impossible country a journalist’s attempt to make sense of what had happened in the former Yugoslavia.  He had been there in the months before war broke out, and he could not understand how it was that people who had lived peacefully together had suddenly become consumed by hatred and riven apart by atrocity.  Although he included some of the history of the place to illuminate ancient discords, the book was more like an elegy for civilised behaviour than the usual hasty book thrown together to make good sales to a mystified public.  It was excellent.

And now, so many years later, I read The Cellist of Sarajevo, and it makes a powerful assertion: in the midst of horror and hatred, it is possible to make moral choices and retain one’s humanity.  Through the eyes of three characters, Dragan, Kenan and Arrow, we see them confront moral dilemmas large and small, and the choices they make define them as noble.

Kenan ventures out into a city beset by snipers, to get water for his family.  He has an unpleasant neighbour who expects him to get water for her too.  It would be easier, and safer, and he would have to make the risky trip to the brewery less often if he did not help her.

Dragan is an old man, on his way to the bakery where he works.  Each day he must traverse an intersection where snipers pick off easy victims.  A cameraman comes to film the scene for the foreign media and there is a body on the street.  Dragan does not want the world to think that they are a people who leave the dead abandoned on the street but it’s highly risky to retrieve the body.

Arrow is a young woman who has become a sniper.  For her it is important not to become consumed by hate.  When she is assigned to protect the cellist of Sarajevo, who played Albinoni’s Adagio at the site of a massacre where 22 people were shelled on their way to the bakery, she is expected to kill the sniper who has in turn been assigned to kill the cellist on behalf of the ‘men on the hills’ .  She sees him stay his rifle and listen to the music.  Should she kill him?

The daily lives of these three characters reveal the privations and misery of life under the siege.  All three are fatalistic about their chances of survival, but are determined that the Sarajevo that survives will be a place worth fighting for.

It’s a beautiful book.

Author: Steven Galloway
Title: The Cellist of Sarajevo
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2009
ISBN: 9781921351303
Source: Personal library, purchased at Readings

Fishpond: The Cellist of Sarajevo


  1. […] The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway […]


  2. I read this a few years back – it was my top read of that year, simply blew me away.


    • HI Sally, lovely to see you here! I agree, what I loved about this book was the way it presented the citizens of this city as human beings with choices, not just as helpless victims of that horrible war.


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