Thursday, September 04, 2008


The Cellist of Sarajevo

Steven Galloway begins his new novel, "The Cellist of Sarajevo" with a historical event, the story of the cellist, Vedran Smailovic, who defied enemy snipers and mortar shells to play Tomaso Albinoni's "Adagio in G minor" in the middle of a city street in Sarajevo every day at four o'clock for twenty-two days to honor twenty-two of his neighbors who were killed on that spot by mortar shells while waiting to buy bread. Galloway presents three different perspectives on the siege of that city - a young sniper assigned to defend the cellist, a father attempting to cross the city to get clean water for his family, and a bread-factory employee just trying to cross one of the more dangerous intersections to get to work. Each comes across the cellist and pauses as his unexpected music momentarily transports them to a better time. Then the reality of their impossible situation returns and they resume their struggle to survive. The cellist in this novel plays only a minor role, being primarily a device to link together the stories of all the characters as they try to deal with the bizarre reality in their own ways.

This book calls to mind another recent novel about a fictionalized historical cellist, "The Spanish Bow", by Andromeda Romano-Lax. Andromeda (I love that name), who herself is a cellist, presents an enthralling story about a cellist, loosely based on the life and times of Pablo Casals. Unlike the cellist in Galloway's book who is not really the main character in the story, the cellist in "The Spanish Bow" is the focus of the novel, and we read about his life from the time as a young child he receives "the bow" from his absent father until he ultimately becomes one of the most celebrated cellists of his time.

It seems, as I watch way too much television for my own good, that more and more often one of the guest characters in the various series (frequently a child) is studying the cello. It seems to be a fad these days. A few recent movies present cellists as a main character [including "The Soloist", based on the book by Steve Lopez, which hasn't yet been released]. The depictions on TV are fleeting, almost superfluous. The movies are a little more engrossing, but I tend to get distracted watching the actor's simulated playing.

I much prefer to read about cellists. So from this fan: thank you, Andromeda Romano-Lax; thank you, Steven Galloway; thank you, Steve Lopez.

I love reading books about cellists too. All is not harmonious with the original cellist of Sarajevo, however, who is unhappy about being portrayed in the novel. See: New York Times
When I first read the blurbs on the book's cover I was surprised to see no reference to the real Cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailovic. His name is not mentioned anywhere until a brief author's note at the end of the book.

Smailovic's anger is understandable. I can see how he feels the book's author has stolen his identity and is capitalizing off his story. I would have liked to see the author [or at least the publisher] reaching out to Smailovic before the book was published...

Nevertheless, the book itself stands on its own as a remarkable examination of an extraordinarily brutal episode in our recent history.

Perhaps some accommodation could be reached between the author and the cellist if the author were to use some of his anticipated profits to fund some sort of music program in Sarajevo...
There's a CBC interview with Steven Galloway I linked to here ( I can imagine he was inspired by the real story, but wanted to write his own version. There's much more difficulty in trying to interpret someone else's story sometimes - though it's too bad it was so close to the real life events that it angered the real cellist of Sarajevo. I haven't read it yet, the UK version isn't out yet I don't think.

If you extend your interest to upper string players too, an acquaintance of mine, Jessica Duchen, has recently published a neat book about Gypsy violin players called Hungarian Dances. I've started reading it and it's interesting. Though it will make you crave stew.
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