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The Cellist of Sarajevo

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This brilliant novel with universal resonance, set during the 1990s Siege of Sarajevo, tells the story of three people trying to survive in a city rife with the extreme fear of desperate times, and of the sorrowing cellist who plays undaunted in their midst.

One day a shell lands in a bread line and kills twenty-two people as the cellist watches from a window in his flat. He vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the twenty-two victims. The Adagio had been re-created from a fragment after the only extant score was firebombed in the Dresden Music Library, but the fact that it had been rebuilt by a different composer into something new and worthwhile gives the cellist hope.

Meanwhile, Kenan steels himself for his weekly walk through the dangerous streets to collect water for his family on the other side of town, and Dragan, a man Kenan doesn’t know, tries to make his way towards the source of the free meal he knows is waiting. Both men are almost paralyzed with fear, uncertain when the next shot will land on the bridges or streets they must cross, unwilling to talk to their old friends of what life was once like before divisions were unleashed on their city. Then there is “Arrow,” the pseudonymous name of a gifted female sniper, who is asked to protect the cellist from a hidden shooter who is out to kill him as he plays his memorial to the victims.

In this beautiful and unforgettable novel, Steven Galloway has taken an extraordinary, imaginative leap to create a story that speaks powerfully to the dignity and generosity of the human spirit under extraordinary duress.

235 pages, Hardcover

First published April 8, 2008

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About the author

Steven Galloway

10 books225 followers
Galloway was born in Vancouver, and raised in Kamloops, British Columbia. He attended the University College of the Cariboo and the University of British Columbia. His debut novel, Finnie Walsh, was nominated for the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. His second novel, Ascension, was nominated for the BC Book Prizes' Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and has been translated into numerous languages. His third novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, was published in spring of 2008. It was heralded as "the work of an expert" by the Guardian, and has become an international bestseller with rights sold in 20 countries. Galloway has taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia and taught and mentored creative writing in The Writer's Studio, at the writing and publishing program at Simon Fraser University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,325 reviews
Profile Image for TK421.
554 reviews257 followers
January 13, 2012
Few books have ever moved me to tears. Sure, I get sad every once in a while when reading a story, but hardly ever do I feel like crying after a novel. THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO made me cry. Not face trembling, snot pouring from the nose type of crying, rather, the tears that came from completion of this novel were from a deep sadness I rarely experience. But before getting to my crying episode, let me first share a few things that I found amazing with this book:

1) It was written by Steve Galloway, a Canadian, who has no ties with the people or the city of Sarajevo
2) This story is based on the real life event of Vedran Smailovic, a cellist who played for 22 days as snipers fought each other in the buildings surrounding him
3) Even the people that do not have major roles in the novel are given a voice through the actions, inactions, emotions, and thoughts of the ones that are actively described and followed, which gives this book a Dickensian quality that I admire and appreciate because the novel is only 235 pages long
4) The simple fact that this story was told at all…history has had a funny way of forgetting this part of the world.

The story opens in a war-torn part of Sarajevo. People are mulling about, trying to live their lives as best they can in a besieged city. As they try to hustle each other for food or information or cigarettes, a whistle splits the air….a mortar has landed among them, killing 22, maiming countless others. These are civilians that have been targeted. They pose no military threat. Most of the killed are women and children.

The next day, at approximately the same time that the mortar fell, a man enters the street carrying a cello case, sets up a chair, and opens the cello case. He takes his time. Almost as if time no longer exists for him. And in a way, for the man and the people of Sarajevo, time is no longer a constricting factor on their lives. After he has opened the case, he takes out his cello and begins to tune it. Again, time plays no part here. He is not here for the rebels; he is not here for a political statement. He is here for the ones that are no longer able to be there. Slowly, like a surgeon making the first cut for open heart surgery, he draws his bow across the strings and plays. Music fills the empty air. And for a bit, anger and violence are no longer heard.

Had this been a one-time occurrence, this story would be a footnote in world history, a hushed whisper among historical enthusiasts. But the next day the cellist does the same thing; and he continues to partake in this seemingly idiotic music playing for twenty-two days. Every day is dedicated to one of the 22 that was killed by the mortar. This is all fact.

Enter Steve Galloway. This young author takes this story and does not necessarily spin it, in as much as he creates a perfect background for it. In his version of Sarajevo, he brings the reader into a world that few of us will ever experience. He builds a perfect world of rubble one dilapidated and shelled-out building at a time. Then he creates fictitious people to populate his vision. These are not military commandos performing feats of courage; these people are not villains and heroes that fight; the people within this story are ordinary people: an old woman, an exhausted man, a young woman who knows only the truth when she squeezes the trigger of her rifle, and a young man that wants to be courageous, but knows that courage is only a means to immediate death. These people are not selfish. They are not numb to what is happening in their city. They have become shells of themselves, like the destroyed buildings that once harbored commerce or residential life.

The story follows these people through an average day of what they could be expected to experience. For some, the day involves getting water from a well. For others, the action of the day follows them to the market, where they hope to get any type of bread, fresh or otherwise. Some of these characters have to run a gauntlet of enemy soldiers firing upon them. Some of them have to make hard decisions of helping thy neighbor, or helping only thyself.

The other main character is the female sniper that is pulled from her normal duties, and given the assignment of protecting the cellist. (This may or may not be fact.) At first, she argues against such a colossal task. The cellist has become something of a national figure now. The music that spews forth from his instrument is more devastating to the surrounding soldiers than bombs or missiles or bullets. For this music is hope. And hope is not what the conquerors want to face. They want to face scared men and women, trembling children. Reluctantly, she accepts this assignment. For the most part, she listens to him play, thinks about her own personal history, and wonders if there will ever be a day that all of this can be forgotten. (I will spare any more details for fear of giving a crucial sequence of events away.)

Now, why did this story move me to tears? The answer may not be as simple as I once thought. I have never seen war. I hope to never see war. In all the accounts of war that I have read and heard firsthand from my father and brothers, not once was I ever moved to a state of sadness as I was upon completion of this book. When I finished reading this, I sat in my chair and thought about the man getting water from a well. He once had a life that was drastically different than the one he now lived. And then I thought about the old woman and wondered if she ever thought she would experience such cruelty in her lifetime. Then I thought about how this story, true events with an embellished backdrop, probably happened in some variant form. I thought about the places in the world that have escalating violence, and wondered if I will ever see it come to my country. I thought about history and the way it treats its victims. Then I thought about the cellist. I thought about his actions, his courage, his resolve to keep playing until he had honored each and every one of the 22 that were killed. And then I cried. Because I knew that I could never be that brave.

Profile Image for Richard (on hiatus).
160 reviews180 followers
March 24, 2019
The break up of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian War were geographically too close for comfort and are still too close to feel like history. I’d travelled to Yugoslavia a couple of times before the troubles and stayed in a town very similar to my own. This made the daily news images from the siege of Sarajevo seem even more raw and desperate.
Early in the novel, the Cellist surveys his ruined city. Music is the only thing that allows him to transcend the horror around him. He dons a tuxedo, steps outside and plays his cello in a crater in front of his apartment ......... a place where many died queuing for bread.
A strong image but I worried that the book would unintentionally make light of the war though arty, surreal and overly lyrical writing.
This wasn’t the case.
The writing is good but plain and all the more hard hitting because of it.
The story follows the lives of four random characters as they try to live day by day in the disintegrating city. A family man, a female sniper, a lonely bakery worker and a musician, the cellist of Sarajevo.
Sarajevo is a broken, shadowy world plagued by heart stopping fear and suspicion. The fabric of society has crumbled and the only people who get enough food are the corrupt.
The ‘men on the hills’ watch down day and night, guns and mortars ready and the daily necessity of crossing a road or fetching water, with snipers everywhere, is an unbearably tense and dangerous affair.
One character hates bumping into old friends or seeing the blackened ruins of buildings like the old national library, because it reminds him of his world before the war.
Life is on hold. A form of purgatory.
An instance in the narrative, close to the beginning of the book, really got to me. Kenan wakes up early one morning. Without thinking he turns on a light (electricity has been non existent of late) and to his surprise and delight the bulb lights up. Relief and happy thoughts crowd into his head. A hot meal for once, his kids watching a cartoon on the tv, a brief taste of normality and the feeling that maybe the war won’t go on forever. Suddenly life seems doable, bearable. And then ............ the light flicks off. The horrible greyness returns. His family are still asleep - he decides not to tell them.
The Cellist Of Sarajevo is a thoughtful, quietly gripping and moving study of the horrible reality of life in a war zone - it reads like a dystopian horror novel but unfortunately it’s all too real.
Highly recommended!
March 24, 2019
The futility and horror of war are felt most acutely and despairingly when the young, the helpless and the innocent, bear the ultimate price. At 4 pm on 26th May 1992, in a war-torn Sarajevo marketplace, a mortar bomb killed 22 people, mostly women, as they queued for bread. In homage to each of those lost souls and in protest against the violence and conflict, an unknown Cellist enters the square at 4 pm each day afterwards for 22 days, to play his cello. He is completely isolated, vulnerable and a high priced target for the attacking snipers.

The narration is told through the eyes of 3 characters as they each navigate the shelled-out city at risk of losing their lives. One is an elderly baker travelling across the city to work and make sure he has bread for his family. Another is a man making the daily routine of fetching fresh water from the brewery. The third character is a female sniper watching and protecting the Cellist from the surrounding buildings of rubble.

In a besieged city the objective is to drive to submission the defending people, to destroy all hope, to condemn people to absolute debilitating fear for their lives. The cellist sits in the middle of the square, sets up his instrument and plays. He creates something beautiful, and melodic, and mesmerising. Among the destruction, he demonstrates power over fear, a symbol of hope, and a light that reminds us of humanity and normality. There are those that need to remove this defiant symbol but our third character, the sniper Arrow, is drafted into making sure he remains alive, and kill any snipers on the other side.

It is a deeply moving story that shows even in the most inhuman situations someone is prepared to risk everything to remind us that life is about living.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” – Oscar Wilde.

While the story constructs fictional characters the background to the book and the cellist are based on actual events during the conflict of the breakup of Yugoslavia, and an actual cellist, Vedran Smailović. Vedran left the city in 1993 and didn’t play in or visit Sarajevo again until 5th April 2012, when he returned for a performance.

I highly recommend this book. While it's a wonderful novel with fictional characters, the fact that it is based on an actual event gives us a deeper context and illustrates how beauty can confront the ugliness of war.
Profile Image for Mary.
423 reviews771 followers
June 4, 2015
Recently, I’ve been bemused by some ongoing commotion in my workplace over a draft blowing through some glass doors. Perhaps it’s because I just finished The Cellist of Sarajevo last night, but the office hubbub no longer amuses me and I think this is partly why books such as this one are fundamental. There are entirely far too many comfortable, middle-class people in their warm, dry cubicles complaining about things that don’t matter. These people will never know true hardship; their cities will never burn to the ground. They’ll never be without running water or food and though they whine about ice on the roads on their way to work, they’ll never know the horror of being shelled in the street, or watch their neighbor shot in the head trying to cross the road.

If only the people who truly need to read books like this would, for once, read books like this.

Steven Galloway isn’t Bosnian, or a journalist, and he didn’t survive the siege of Sarajevo. Yet, his book was written with great lucidity. The prose is sparse and contains a quiet tension that mimics what the three (fictional) citizens in the novel are all dealing with. There’s Arrow, a female sniper caught up in a soldier’s world; Dragan, an elderly man trapped in the streets on his way to work; and Kenan, a young father facing death every few days to get clean water for his family. Kenan struck me the most. He wasn’t brave and he didn’t transform. He was just a terrified, ordinary man and made me wonder if most of us would remain terrified and ordinary under such circumstances.

This isn’t the first book I’ve read about Bosnia and it may not even be the best I’ve read, but today, right now, it haunts me.
Profile Image for Darryl Greer.
Author 7 books310 followers
April 25, 2020
The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Initially besieged by the forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army, it was then besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska from 05 April 1992 for 1,425 days during the Bosnian War, three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad. During the siege, Vedran Smailovic, a cellist, caught the imagination of people around the world by playing his cello, most notably performing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for twenty-two days, in the ruined square of a downtown Sarajevo marketplace after a mortar round had killed twenty-two people waiting for food there. Around these facts, author Steven Galloway has crafted his intriguing fictional novel, "The Cellist of Sarajevo". The story is written in the present tense, through the eyes of three individuals, apparently unknown to each other, as they go about their daily lives in circumstances it is barely possible to imagine. Kenan makes regular trips out of his building to fetch water for himself and a neighbour, forever fearful that on one of his journeys, he will not be spared a sniper’s bullet. Dragan, an elderly baker, lives in the past, unable to discern the real Sarajevo, the one he sees today to the one of his pleasant memories. Then there is the soldier known as Arrow who believes she is different from those in the hills. She only shoots soldiers – they shoot civilians.

At times, the writing, focussing as it does on the minutiae of daily life for the three characters through whose eyes we experience the reality of a war-ravaged city, can get a little tedious. But that tends add to the despair these people, and the rest of the residents of Sarajevo suffered on a daily basis for 1,425 days. "The Cellist of Sarajevo" is a war story with a difference. The story’s lack of tanks, heavy artillery fire, RPGs and blood and guts makes it no less a tale of humanity at war than, say a Chris Ryan novel. It is masterfully written, a microscopic look at war through the eyes of ordinary people trapped in the ruins of a once beautiful city with a world watching on and doing little to help.
Profile Image for Debbie W..
708 reviews453 followers
February 7, 2021
"civilization...needs to be built constantly, recreated daily."

It is so sad how a once beautiful city, home of the 1984 Winter Olympics, had been reduced to ruins where, during the Siege of Sarajevo, people lived in constant fear (for almost 4 years) of artillery, mortar, machine-gun and rifle fire used by Bosnian Serbs to indiscriminately wound and kill thousands of civilians. What is more heartbreaking is that this isn't a war from a long time past, but one that occurred less than 30 years ago.

When 22 people were killed and over 70 people were wounded by mortar shells while waiting in line for bread at a Sarajevan market, cellist Vedran Smailovic played at the site for 22 days in honor of the dead. Author Steven Galloway was inspired by this man to write this story.

Told from the POV of three characters, Arrow, Kenan and Dragan, Galloway's writing successfully drew empathy from me for their constant frustrations and their feelings of hopelessness. I especially felt their fear, not only of venturing out or of staying inside, but of becoming immune to the killings.

Appreciate all the small luxuries in life! In my opinion, living in a war zone, such as Sarajevo, is much more frightening than living through a pandemic. I feel ashamed of being so ignorant to these people's plight while it was occurring. We need to get our heads out of the sand and read stories like this one. Highly recommend!

Note: As of October 2007, shortly before this novel's release, Radovan Karadzic (Bosnian Serb president) and Gen. Ratko Mladic (Bosnian Serb military leader who masterminded the Srebrenica Massacre) were still at large. Karadzic was captured in 2008 and sentenced in 2016, and Mladic was captured in 2011 and sentenced in 2017, both to life in prison for war crimes, including genocide.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,184 reviews1,080 followers
October 22, 2018
The Cellist of Sarajevo is a book where fact and fiction blend to tell a story of ordinary people and the terror of war.

Fact A cellist who has been the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Sympaathy Orchestra until the war came to the city witnesses a shelling that takes the lives of twenty two civilians, in defiance the cellist decides to play for 22 days in tribute to mark their deaths.

Fiction Around this event the author imagines the lives of four characters and so we see everyday life through their eyes in a city torn apart by War.

The book is well written and does draw the reader in and gives an insight into the hardships of the war what life was like for the people caught up in the conflict. However there is little background on the actual war and I had to do a little research to remind myself of the politics that led to this siege in order to connect fully to the story.

The characterisation is well done and I found myself immersed in daily routines and lives. A cellist, A man trying to cross the city to get water, a baker and a sniper assigned to protect the cellist all make this story a worthwhile read.

An interesting and thought provoking book. I listened to this one on audio and the narration was really good.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
May 9, 2022
How do you create or maintain empathy as the world continues to spin into insanity? I was thinking of Ukraine, as I am trying to do every day, following the news, and how difficult it is for journalists and artists to get us feel what is going on there. I don’t mean to intellectually understand it politically, but to feel what it is like to live in these lovely cities such as Odessa, Kyiv, and Mariupol, bombed into oblivion. On the day I had some surgery this spring--feeling sorry for myself a little--I watched American news footage of the man who himself had watched Ukrainian news footage confirming that his wife and children had been killed crossing a bridge they had regularly crossed as a family together. I stopped feeling sorry for myself, for starters! The people of Ukraine--their courage, their grief--came alive for me at that moment.

I hope I never completely forget that man, but I know I probably will. You need to work on empathy. The process of maintaining civilization in the face of myriad horrors depends on it. So I turned to this book I had never read. My friend Gian had recommended it to me more than a decade ago; I listened to the piece the cellist had played, and I thought, this is all you need, this music, this image of a man playing it in a bombed out square, this moment, this musical poem to the arts and humanity, to sadness and survival. I already get the point! I know the book will make me cry. So why do I need to expand on that simple moment of despair and hope?

Galloway has one or two of his characters reflect on this very insinuation, that art may just not be "useful." Why is this fool playing in the most dangerous square in the country, where mortar fire and snipers are randomly killing people every day? What is he hoping to accomplish?!

The “cellist of Sarajevo,” Vedran Smailovic, watched from his apartment window as 22 people standing in a line to buy bread were killed by mortar fire. Many many others had been killed there and elsewhere in this country in the nineties, during the siege of Sarajevo, roughly 1992-1996, amidst the wreckage of this beautiful city. Some sites such as the Parliament building had not surprisingly been targeted, but we also learn that the main library had been destroyed, and the Opera House demolished, apparently deliberately. Why?!

Yet out of the wreckage we understand the fragments of a piece of music was found and recreated, and partly created, Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, and Vedran decided that he would play this in the dangerous public square each day for 22 days, one day for each person that had been killed. And he did play, and he lived. And as people in Sarajevo and around the world became aware of this remarkable act of grief, tribute and hope--the very representation of the arts in a world gone violently and hatefully mad--others joined in.

Galloway creates a work of historical fiction making three people come alive for us, to help us make Sarajevo and its people and that period also possibly come alive for us. Kenan weekly walks through the dangerous streets to collect water for his family. Dragan tries to make his way towards the source of a free meal. Both men are almost paralyzed with fear but they keep moving forward. What choice do they have? “Arrow,” is the pseudonym of a female sniper asked to protect the cellist from a hidden shooter who is out to kill him as he plays his memorial to the victims.

Yes, sure, you cry, as you see Arrow watch the intended killer smile at the conclusion of one day’s rendition of the Adagio. And when Arrow finally refuses a direct order to kill civilians--because then we are at endless war, revenge our only motive (as was the case so long in Ireland, as is the case in the Middle East, and so on)--we see why we simply can't endlessly maintain hate and fear as a basis for living.

We learn decades later from survivors that in this city of light--in 1984 loved as the site of the Winter Olympics--three ethnic groups--Bosniak, Serbs and Croats--lived together, but then some groups turned to nationalistic hatred, fueling a vicious homicidal/suicidal historical moment. And then after all of the insanity, that violence ended. As the assault on Ukraine will some day end, after so much useless death and destruction. I’m glad I read this book, a candle lit against the darkness. But this is what reading and the arts are for, to continually renew our hope and determination to care for each other. And protest against hate and terror.

Includes some of the actual playing during the 22 days, and the cellist talking about why he had played there in the square:


Galloway in Sarajevo:


Image: A former football field turned into a graveyard.

Yo Yo Ma’s simple tribute version:


Hauser’s version, with full orchestra:


100 Violinists play in solidarity with musicians in Ukraine:


A Ukrainian violinist in her basement:

Profile Image for A.J..
Author 2 books20 followers
August 27, 2008
The Cellist of Sarajevo has received good reviews and on the surface has a lot going for it. It's well written, convincing in its detail and doesn't waste words. Three characters struggle to get by in besieged Sarajevo. Kenan walks off to get water for his family and neighbours; Dragan to get bread. The third, Arrow, is a female sniper charged with protecting the cellist, who for twenty-two days will play in the Markale marketplace to commemorate the victims of a mortar attack.

The triple, parallel narrative struction Galloway uses is a staple of contemporary fiction; five minutes in your local bookstore will suffice to find a novel featuring three unrelated characters whose stories are drawn together by some central event or symbol. That's fine, but the problem is the way it can suggest we have a false solidarity, as the three stories all arrive at the same conclusion. When that happens, we arrive not at some kind of truth but at a literary contrivance.

This is where The Cellist of Sarajevo goes off the rails. When you step back and look at it from a critical distance, the novel becomes irritatingly contrived. This is most evident in the story of Arrow, the female sniper. The contrivance appears in the timeline: while Dragan's and Kenan's stories cover a single day, Arrow's stretches over several days, but is presented in parallel. Her character, too, is contrived. While Kenan and Dragan are convincingly everyman, Arrow is exceptional. She's not only an exceptionally skilled sniper, but she sets her own rules, choosing her own missions and working outside the normal chain of command.

There is no real tragedy in Galloway's Sarajevo. People die, to be sure, but each of the three characters emerges clean and morally unscathed, overcomes his (or her) flaws and becomes a better human being. There is no sense that wars call on people to do terrible things; there is no moral ambiguity. There is no sense that the most difficult question for Sarajevans is not how they will survive the war, but how they will live with themselves and their neighbours in the aftermath. Instead, the novel offers simplistic platitudes: killing people is wrong, and art will heal our wounded humanity.

Notably, the real-world cellist whom Galloway used to unify his novel is less concerned with art than with cold, hard cash, and as soon as the novel hit the best-seller list he demanded some. This alone should suggest there's something awry with this novel's vision.
Profile Image for Susan Rich.
Author 20 books46 followers
June 19, 2010
I was skeptical of a book written about Sarajevo by someone who neither lived through the seige nor who is a Bosnian, but I was wrong. The book is a lyrical song to a city l love very much. Clearly, the author has done enormous research and spent time in the city with Sarajevans. All that aside, what I love about this book is the deep empathy with the characters and with the city. Something about living in these unspeakable conditions is understood by the writer and rendered here with beauty and remarkable empathy. I plan to return to this book again.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,228 reviews527 followers
September 9, 2021
A combination of history and historical fiction, The Cellist of Sarajevo is a harrowing portrait of a late 20th century civil war set in central Europe... And an excellent reading experience.

further review to come...
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,918 reviews35.4k followers
October 28, 2014
I've read this a couple of times ---

I never posted it on Goodreads? Shame on me! I thought everyone has read it! Its such a sad/sweet story. This small story can read it in a couple of hours --- Fresh air will pump through your body from the experience.

When I saw that my GR's friend --(also friend & neighbor)-- is reading it now ---my heart warmed!
Profile Image for Jessaka.
868 reviews106 followers
May 15, 2022
The Rifle and the Bow

The rifle and The Cellist's bow were laid together in the middle of the street amongst the bouquets of flowers. Maybe by now they have been long forgotten by some for it all happened many years ago. It was in the 1990s when Bosnia was in a civil war. When death was visited upon the people daily and when fear filled the streets of Sarajevo. Twenty two people were killed in one day at the market place where they were standing in line to get bread. It was this that the cellist saw fromhis window, and it was this that brought him out to the street with his cello. He came out at 4 p.m. each day. And people gathered around to listen, though they be few.

Snipers picked off the civilians one by one while they were going to the market or to the brewery to gather water to drink for the people had become divided. Trust had died an ugly death. And in my naïve way, I thought that people should not have to live in fear of any other person.
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,464 reviews9 followers
September 11, 2016
During the Siege of Sarajevo in 1992, twenty-two people were killed by mortar fire while waiting in line to buy bread. A local Cellist commemorated them by playing his cello at 4 pm every day for twenty-two days on the site of the killings. This story is told through the eyes of three extraordinary people: a man who spends most of each day walking across the city to get water for his family and an ungrateful neighbor; another man who walks to his job at the bakery while dodging sniper bullets from the surrounding hills; and my favorite character Arrow, a young woman assassin-with-a-conscience who is assigned to keep the Cellist safe from sniper fire.

This is just one month out of a war that lasted for years. The author has done an admirable job of depicting war through the civilians who were forced to think about their own courage or lack thereof and about what ultimately defines them, who only wished for peace, running water, and electricity. Those of us who live free cannot begin to imagine.
Profile Image for Buggy.
486 reviews677 followers
January 23, 2012
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 that I knew very little, only what I'd seen on the news. 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. Because it is so well done I also found it painful to read, depressing, absolutely futile and 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.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,779 reviews213 followers
November 14, 2019
Fictional depiction of the siege of Sarajevo during the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the break-up of Yugoslavia. The novel weaves together stories of three citizens of Sarajevo. These three do not know each other. The common thread is a listening to a cellist playing Albioni’s Adagio in G minor for twenty-two consecutive days, one day for each person killed by a mortar blast while standing in line for bread. The cellist risks death from sniper fire to commemorate the lives of these civilians. This novel encapsulates what life was like for the people living in Sarajevo during the siege, such as walking long distances to obtain fresh water, struggling to obtain food, dealing with a lack of electricity and other conveniences, and snipers picking people off as they cross the street.

The story is largely told through the inner thoughts of the characters. The author paints a vivid picture of what it would be like to live in a war zone, the drastic changes in the way people interact with each other, and the emotional harm inflicted by living with the threat of imminent death. For example:

Dragan is afraid of dying, but what he’s afraid of more is the time that might come between being shot and dying. He isn’t sure how long it takes to die when you’re shot in the head, if it’s instantaneous or if your consciousness remains for a few seconds, and he’s skeptical of anyone who claims to know for certain. Either way, it’s a lot better than gulping air like a fish in the bottom of a boat, watching your own blood gush into the ground and thinking whatever thoughts people have when they see themselves ending.

The author is making a statement about war, its impact on ordinary citizens (as opposed to soldiers), and the role of art in maintaining a sense of hope. This novel is not about the war itself, how it started, or any of the ethnic groups involved. It is about how people struggle to retain their humanity in the midst of death, destruction, and chaos. By placing ordinary people into these extraordinary circumstances, it allows readers to examine how they would react in a similar situation.

In the Afterword, the author explains what is based on fact and what he fictionalized. The war lasted from 1992 through 1995, but he focuses on a period of three weeks. I recommend reading a non-fiction about the Bosnian War as a companion to this novel.
Profile Image for Liza Fireman.
839 reviews141 followers
December 14, 2017
During a siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War, 22 people who were in line to buy bread are killed when a shell hits next to the bakery. It was next to a cellist’s apartment building, and he decided to play for 22 days, in memory of the dead, one day for each victim.

In a ruined city, where people are shot when crossing the street, this is a suicide attempt. And there is a sniper watching him, and basically he can get shot at any moment. A woman sniper, Arrow, is assigned to protect him. And she tells part of the story. A sniper with conscious, with a soul in her.

It is a a world of danger, the author does a very good job explaining and showing that. No food, no water, people are killed on the street, hate and destruction are everywhere, and the future looks as bad as the present.

I had a bit hard time with the narration, and I didn't like the structure which follows three different people, three points of view. And even though the storyline itself is quite good, it was not engaging and the characters not easy to relate to. I think it is mostly because of the writing and with a skilled author could work much better. 3 stars.
Profile Image for Annalisa.
523 reviews1,340 followers
August 17, 2010
My favorite part of this book was the discussion of Sarajevo's role in starting the first World War with an assassination. "When the world thought of Sarajevo, it was as a place of murder. It isn't clear to him how the world will think of the city now that thousands have been murdered. He suspects that what the world wants most is not to think of it all."

I was in high school when the siege on Sarajevo began. And honestly, I didn't know, or at least had forgotten, about Sarajevo's role in WWI, because when I think of Sarajevo, I do think of murder and a time the world didn't want to think about them as it collectively held its breath and waited for the shooting to be over. Just like with Warsaw, I want to think about the rich culture and beauty that was destroyed, but my mind automatically goes to the worst of it. Why is it that it's always the worst moments that defines us?

The Cellist of Sarajevo gives us a picture of four people stuck in Sarajevo during the siege. One stuck for hours at an intersection targeted by a sniper as he tries to head to the bakery where he works for a meal. Another risking his life to race through intersections and across bridges to get water for his family, both of them hoping they would not be the ones targeted by snipers. One is a fictional account of the cellist who played out in the open for twenty-two days in honor of twenty-two victims of one attack. And my favorite voice, a female sniper with a sixth sense, trying to understand her hatred and how it differed from the men on the hill killing them. The other voices were just glimpses, but hers we really get inside her head so I could feel for her and root for her. Other than the glimpses in the media of brutality in the streets, this was my first glimpse into the real Sarajevo and the fear of its citizens trapped inside. And it's told beautifully.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 1 book145 followers
February 4, 2019
In beautiful, simple sentences, Steven Galloway tells an incredibly moving story of four individuals, acting and reacting while the city of Sarajevo is under siege.

“The city is full of people doing the same as he is, and they all find a way to continue with life. They’re not cowards and they’re not heroes.”

Galloway paints intricate pictures of the way music can change an individual’s reality--at a time when reality really needs changing. These scenes are breathtakingly beautiful and made me realize the power of art in a distressing world.

In the midst of inhumanity, there is still beauty, still humanity, and this book sheds light on that humanity. It serves as an important reminder to appreciate the things that we have, and not take them for granted. It also makes you think about what each of us might be required to do when the civilization we count on is threatened.

“Because civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly; re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible.”
Profile Image for Jason.
196 reviews71 followers
December 9, 2016
3 Stars, rounded up.

I held out hope for this novel because many have raved about it. But, meh...

I'll say that Galloway has beautiful, lyrical prose, so the novel has that going for it. He was able to show the repetitiousness of war; there is constant shelling, constant bombing, constant fear for your life, etc. Outside of that, it really didn't get to me like it did some people.

I didn't enjoy the structuring. The three narrative structure felt a little contrived, in an effort to lay down some sense of anticipation for the ending. It announced, "You're going to have to read until the very last page to see who lives and dies," and it was like, ugh, where's the fun in that? The story would have been more powerful if one of the three died earlier in my opinion; however, given the structure, you knew that wasn't going to happen, because Galloway doesn't deviate from the 1-2-3 beat of the novel. For all the story was trying to do to showcase the tragedies of war, it kind of flopped on that. Sure, countless civilians died in this siege, which is tragic, but the three main characters pull through because they're all deeply moved by the Cellist. Early on, I realised that was likely to happen, and here's why I didn't like that...

Perhaps I'm stretching this, but to me it was a God metaphor. The cellist is God, the trio in the novel are those arrogant people who thank God for their very survival and existence, whereas the rest of the civilians, being slain by the constant shelling and explosions, are the suckers on whom God apparently turned his back. It was like Arrow, Dragan, and Kenan believed they cared the most about the music/Cellist therefore that is why they were spared. Meanwhile, if you didn't stop and listen to the music (or continue to listen to it long after the Cellist left) you fell victim to the violence. It was kind of an insult to the thousands of others who were not spared. I think this is why I felt detached to the characters. You see this kind of delusion in real life whenever tragedies occur, and it's always upsetting for me to see.

Further, I didn't believe the characters were in any real danger throughout the novel. I didn't wonder if they might not make it at some point. Sure, in the end, we're left to wonder what happened to Arrow, but she was the least realistic character for me. Arrow's existence in the novel seemed like a weak attempt to confuse the reader over who the real hero is - is it the Cellist? Is it Arrow? Is it perhaps even Dragan or Kenan? It's obvious Galloway felt the Cellist is the saviour here, but he tried not to make that too obvious, so he created Arrow to look over the Cellist, a guardian of sorts, so that another reader might see her as the ultimate hero.

I'm probably bitter because I don't feel this story was done justice. This was a real life event that happened in Sarajevo, a city with a magnificent history, and the novel didn't capture that for me. Angry shake of fist!

One positive thing, I learned a lot about the history of Sarajevo; not from the novel, but because I became curious and did my own research. ;)

Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,829 reviews358 followers
December 8, 2021
I've listened to a few interviews of people who lived through the siege of Sarajevo. I think this novel represents that reality exceedingly well. I also checked to see if there was a real cellist and there was. This author used that real-life situation as the basis for his fictional version.

The chapters that I found most compelling were those from Arrow's point of view. Arrow isn't her real name, it's her sniper name. She was part of a sharpshooting team before the siege and gets recruited by those who are attempting to defend those trapped in the city. Her mission is to keep the cellist alive, safe from opposition sniping. She has survived the siege by suppressing her emotions, but finds the cellist and his music are reaching through her defenses.

This is the power of art in all its forms. Music, literature, painting, architecture, you name it. The men in the hills who are trying to bring Sarajevo to its knees are destroying all these things methodically. The library was one of the first casualties. All the psychologically important buildings are pummeled. There is the minor musical rebellion of the unnamed cellist, who determines that he will play Albioni's adagio every day at 4 p.m. for 22 days in honour of the 22 people killed while waiting in a bread line outside his home. His defiance through art moves everyone in Sarajevo. Everyone on both sides understands the power of his performances, the power of art.

The three viewpoints (Dragan, Kenan, Arrow) seem to be about the necessities for hope and survival: food, water, and art. I am reminded of Viktor Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning, where he credits luck and having an unfinished task waiting for him for his survival. The daily worry about snipers is in some ways the working of luck in this situation. The task of rebuilding the city awaits those who survive, their unfinished business.

[Do yourself a favour: don't research this author until you have finished the novel, if ever. This is a phenomenal book, written by an imperfect person (as we all are). His life-wreck and unfulfilled talent are a crying shame, even if it is a self-inflicted wound].

Despite my reservations, this novel proves that wonderful art can be created by us less than wonderful people.
Profile Image for Bonnie.
169 reviews280 followers
March 1, 2009
Feb. 28 update:

Since my trip to Whistler, where I had the chance to talk with, and listen to Steven, I have learned that the original cellist and Steven are now on good tems. Apparently, there had been misunderstandings (language barrier could easily play a role!), but now, all is well. :)

Below, the review, as previously written:

Henceforward, when watching daily news clips from war-torn countries, I will think of the three main characters in this story, and what it must be like to live this reality on a day-to-day basis: utterly terrifying. Of course we know this, but we don’t really feel it, we can’t truly empathize with these civilians because one has to really be there to experience the magnitude of living with horror on a daily basis, doing without basics like bread and water. Steven Galloway’s sensitive, tragic, vivid portrayal of these characters living such a life is his gift to the reader.

While the cellist, never named, is central to the story, it is not based on the real-life cellist who apparently objects to this book! Arrow, nom de guerre of a female sniper, is asked to protect the cellist from another sniper. She has her principles. She kills soldiers, not civilians, unlike “the men in the hills.” Even her hatred of the soldiers is re-evaluated as she keeps watch over the cellist.

The other two characters, Kenan and Dragon, family men, brave the streets to make trips to fetch water, to make it to the bakery. Their ability to find hope amidst daily life in a senseless war, to retain their sense of humanity in the face of everything that is negative about war, is what this story is really about.

Another memorable character, Emina, says: Sarajevo roulette… So much more complicated than Russian.

The voices of Steven Galloway’s characters ring so true, bringing to life the daily terror of life as it must have been during the devastating siege of Sarajevo in the 1990’s. I read this book in one sitting: highly recommended.

Profile Image for Connie G.
1,665 reviews440 followers
November 27, 2013
In 1992, twenty-two people were killed by mortar shells as they stood in a bread line in a town square during the Siege of Sarajevo. In honor of the deceased, a local cellist who had witnessed the attack played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor at the site daily for twenty-two days. It is a bit of beauty at a scene of devastation. This fictional book is inspired by this true event in Sarajevo.

The book also tells the stories of three other characters trying to survive the devastation. Sarajevo is surrounded by hills, and the Serb soldiers shell the homes below, and target the civilians as they move through the city. Every four days, Kenan risks his life trying to cross the bridges to fill containers with spring water for his family and an elderly neighbor. Dragan must travel dangerous roads to get to the bakery to work and bring bread home to feed his sister's family. Both men were witnesses to the deaths of others who got picked off by the soldiers. Arrow, a female expert sniper from Sarajevo, has the task of protecting the cellist from an enemy sniper attack. She is trying to hold on to her human goodness while defending her city.

This moving story shows the senselessness of war, and the effect that violence, fear, and destruction has on each of the characters. "The Cellist of Sarajevo" is the third novel of Steven Galloway, a Canadian author from British Columbia.
Profile Image for Marialyce (absltmom, yaya).
1,938 reviews722 followers
March 25, 2011
Picture yourself living each day knowing that someone might have you in their rifle site once you set out your door. Do you think that you might possibly lose your humanity and your self worth if you were living under those circumstances? Hard as this is to believe, people in the city of Sarajevo lived this nightmare from 1992 until 1996.

Based on a true event that actually occurred on May 27, 1992 when mortar shells killed twenty two people who were waiting to buy bread, we meet the cellist who witnessed this event from his apartment window. In tribute to these people as well as a plea of sanity, the cellist vows to play his cello for twenty two days in honor of the victims. He goes into the street daily where he becomes a target for snipers in the hills and plays Albiononi's Adagio in G Minor. This is the basis of the story and shows what one person can do to try to return and bring a sense of beauty and humanity into a war ravaged city.

Into all of this, come our fictional characters. All of them are looking for survival for themselves as well as the people they love and care for. This book points to the realism of war where people venture out for the simplest of needs taking their life in their hands each step of the way. Although a small book, this novel puts one in the characters minds and thoughts and make the reader realize all that war takes away from each being within its grasp.

Tragically sad and moving, Mr Galloway awakened us to becoming well aware that war will and does take everything away from our human nature and make us into something less than what we are meant to be. The cellist brings many people back to that realization that music and beauty and life was what their city once was and it will be again someday the city of joy and happiness as long as its people dream and hope for things that are better. It gives these people hope that one day they will be able to be human again with all its freedoms and ability to feel beauty and life and not death and fear.
Profile Image for Ruthie.
647 reviews4 followers
January 17, 2015
I remember hearing about this book and sorta deciding I just didn't want to read another book about another war, especially one that didn't really effect me. Then I was on vacation in Punta Cana and had nothing left to read so I decided to check out the book-exchange in the condo complex. It was this or a Harlequin Romance so I grabbed it. This book is Brilliant. Period.

It is about the siege of Sarajevo, but really it is about humanity. It is about choosing to survive. It is about surrendering or fighting. It is about the defeat and triumph and the will to live. It is about shutting down or reaching out. It is about not going insane when living through insanity. Or maybe going insane to survive insanity.

The fact that the author managed to make me understand what 400 other books about war, survival, siege and death did not is a statement to his brilliance. The fact that he did not live this war is astounding.

This is a remarkably quiet book for one that takes place on a battlefield. You are in the heads of the characters, in their minds as they make tiny decisions that may or may not mean life or death. The War itself is not the main issue, how each person chooses to survive the war is what we are reading about.

This is not necessarily a quick read (it is a short book), I often had to put it down and think about what I had just read, let it sink in, there is just so much wisdom and insight here!

The review by TK421 here on GR nails how amazing this book truly is and why it is such an amazing accomplishment.
Profile Image for Sharon.
248 reviews101 followers
September 19, 2016
What a beautiful book! Normally when I listen to an audiobook, I speed up the narration to 1.25x or even 1.5x. Speeding up the narration by Gareth Armstrong would have been blasphemous: he sounded like Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey! Narration aside, the book was straightforward and beautiful; the writing style reminded me of Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day." Set in wartorn Sarajevo--but never getting into the specifics/politics of the war other than references to "the men on the hill"--the story follows three characters trying to hold on to their humanity and fight in their own way for the Sarajevo they remember. During each character's story, they are influenced by a cellist who has vowed to take to the streets to play his Adagio for 22 days straight, in honor of 22 men who were mortared while standing in line for bread.

There's some controversy surrounding this book: the cellist in the novel was inspired by a real man, Vedran Smailovic, who was all sorts of bent when he discovered a book had been written about him without his consent. Plenty has been written about this online; my feeling is that Smailovic was enough of a public figure that he must've inspired many artists.
Profile Image for Dalia.
99 reviews5 followers
March 1, 2023
Violoncelistul... - povestea unui om care încearcă să recupereze umanitatea în ciuda războiului.

" Va rămâne în fața ferestrei toată noaptea și ziua următoare. Apoi, la patru după amiaza, la douăzeci și patru de ore de la căderea proiectilului peste prietenii și vecinii sai care stăteau la coadă la pâine, se va apleca și își va ridica arcușul de jos. Își va cara violoncelul împreună cu scaunul, în jos, pe scările înguste, până în stradă. Vă rămâne chiar în craterul de la locul impactului, în timp ce războiul își va urma cursul lui. Va cânta Adagioul lui Albinoni, în fiecare zi, timp de douăzeci și două de zile, câte una pentru fiecare dintre cei care și-au pierdut viața. Sau cel puțin va încerca. "
Profile Image for Laurence Thompson.
4 reviews1 follower
June 23, 2013
At one point in this novel a cameraman sets up on a busy intersection, hoping to capture footage of locals running under sniper-fire. One of the novel's characters bemoans this. To him Sarajevo is so much more than this moment. It's a city of individuals with complex lives that crave meaning. Behind that footage, each person running has a story that deserves to be told.

But to me, Steven Galloway is that cameraman. The stories of his three main characters develop with strong matter of factness; their actions putting them in a near constant line of fire. The aim might be to ratchet up the tension and suspense, but the resulting characters just don't ring true. His research seems to stretch little beyond an A to Z of the city and the viewing of a few news reports from the early 90s. While this is a story that deserves to be told, it's one which comes with a rich interwoven past. And like everything in life, there are also subtle, low key moments. Moments that are as much a part of the story as gunshots and motor fire. Galloway captures little of this.

For those that have limited knowledge of this stage in Sarajevo's history, this book is an eye opener. But then so is the BBC news archive footage that you can find online here. I've walked the streets of Sarajevo and climbed the hills that surround it. It's a beautiful city. And after reading some of the history I still struggle to see the complete picture of the how and the why - a city on the edge of the European Union that remained under siege for three years. This book added nothing to that. But it was also averagely written. With both those things in mind, I can't give it more than two stars.
Profile Image for Dee.
182 reviews42 followers
January 29, 2023

My only issue with this book was the writting style. I felt the sentence construction to be a bit clunky and the story a little repetative in places.

I liked how we follow individual characters throughout this book. The short chapters telling us of each persons struggle for survival daily at such a horrific time.
Each persons story is unique yet intertwined around the cellist and his daily performance.

The strength and determination was made clear from the start and following these individual people we can get a glimps at how terrified and helpless the situation was. The conflics between love and hate asks so many questions to a world that still wars. Fighting continues and people suffer. The cellist was a little glimmer of hope to people in a time of complete despair.
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