It took me much too long to review The Cellist of Sarajevo, but not because I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not. I knew as soon as I started reading this compelling and unusual narrative of the effects of the 1997 siege of Sarajevo on a quartet of the city’s citizens that it was one of the finest books I’ve read in a long time.
No, the delay was because as soon as I finished it, I started loaning it out to people who I was pretty sure would love it, too. One of them, Amir, lived in Sarajevo when the siege began. He managed to escape through the tunnel mentioned in the book, and later married a good friend of mine and came to the U.S.
But enough about that. The narrative of The Cellist of Sarajevo is unusually constructed. There are four main characters, and the chapters alternate between their viewpoints. One of the characters is the titular cellist, who reacts to a bombing that killed 22 people waiting in a bread line by vowing to play on the bombing site every day for 22 days. Another character is “Arrow,” a female sniper who is assigned to protect the cellist from assassination during his daily concerts. Kenan must make a dangerous trek across the city to fetch fresh water for his family, a journey that involves crossing intersections that are targeted by enemy snipers in the hills surrounding Sarajevo. Dragan is making a similar journey, trying to reach his workplace where he knows he can get a free meal — a precious commodity in a city where privation is the norm and no one has enough.
The four characters never meet each other, but they encounter other neighbors, friends, and strangers during the course of their quests. These encounters bring into sharp focus what it means to retain your essential humanity in the most inhumane of conditions, and whether it is possible to live through a war without losing the eseential essence of civilization. It’s important to note, I think, that while The Cellist of Sarajevo is based on actual events, the author says in his introduction that he has compressed three years of war into a month of narrative for literary purposes. Knowing that did not lessen the impact of the story for me in any way.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is beautifully, lyrically written. I found myself compelled to read passages to myself, for the joy of hearing the language spoken aloud. Reading aloud also helped to slow my reading, and prolonged the pure pleasure of the experience of living with these four brave, fascinating individuals.