Now I know why

The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway

Opening line: “It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort.”


A few years ago while I was travelling in Europe I met a guy from Sarajevo and we became friends. At one point he asked me if I knew anything about what had happened in his country. I replied, only what I had seen on the news which was very little. Sasha laughed and never said another word on the subject which at the time I found strange. Now I know why, what could he possibly say that I'd understand?


This is a beautifully written, haunting and thought provoking story that I only wish I could say I liked more. But it's so well done that I found it painful to read. It's depressing and absolutely futile, leaving me feeling angry at the whole world. Which I guess is the point and the ultimate result of any war.



I think what surprised me most is how little I knew about this conflict especially when you consider that it happened between 1992 and 1996. I mean that’s not that long ago and it’s not like this happened in a third world country either, this was modern Europe. I just finished reading a book set during the Second World War about the siege of Leningrad and this reads almost the same. How is that possible? How was this even allowed to happen?


Inspired by a real event this novel follows the lives of an unnamed cellist along with three others trying to survive in a besieged, war torn Sarajevo. It begins in the midst of a country gone mad, a mortar attack has just killed 22 people waiting in line to buy bread. Our cellist decides that to honour the dead for the next 22 days he will play at the point of impact. At 4 o’clock he dons his ragged tuxedo, sits in the bomb crater and plays. This simple courageous act creates a moment of peace and beauty among the rubble it also makes him a target.


Meanwhile a female sniper named “Arrow” is ordered to keep the cellist alive. Crouched from her perch in a bombed out building she waits for the counter-sniper who has surely been sent to kill him. She remembers back to a time when she went to college and flirted with boys at nightclubs and wonders how her life has became this?


The two other characters we follow disturbed me the most; An elderly baker on his way to work on his day off to get his daily ration of bread and a father making the long trek to “the brewery” to collect water for his family. A simple walk through the remains of the city has become a perilous journey. Mortars fall and the “men on the hill” go about their deadly business. Nobody is safe. Crossing the street had become a game of “Serajavan roulette” as the snipers pick off pedestrians. Should I cross now? Should I walk, run, crouch, crawl, go with a group? How do they decide who to shoot? But you need water and you have to eat. You have to make it across the intersection to keep your family alive.


These two men show us the city of Sarajevo as they walk through its remains and it very much becomes a character of its own here. The city shows us beauty and resilience and the men show us bravery, paralysing fear and humanity.