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Canadian Reader 2

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

A number of my students chose to read The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway for their independent projects, and it was second on my list of Canadian books to read alongside them.


This short, introspective novel was inspired by an actual event from the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, wherein a famous cellist, Vedran Smailović, sat in the ruined streets and played in memory of the slaughter of citizens who lined up to buy bread (reportedly, the real-life cellist was "outraged" by the novelist's temerity in using the event as the basis for the book).

The cellist, though the inspiration, is not a main character. They are, instead, a middle-aged man who has sent his family away just in time to escape the siege, a family man trying to supply his wife and children with the necessities of life from day to day, and a young female sniper who has been enlisted to protect the cellist from enemy snipers.

As their days progress, all three characters reflect on the events that have brought them to this pass in their lives—why they hate and are hated, who they are, have been, and want to be. We learn more about their inner worlds than we really do about what is happening in the historical war; those besieging the city are known only as "the men in the hills" and are as faceless and nameless and causeless as that label suggests.

It's a shame, really, that Smailović has reacted so badly to a book that could do for the history of Sarajevo what The Kite Runner has done for the history of Kabul. My students who read this novel reported an increased interest in the historical events surrounding the fictional ones, events that had not been a part of their general knowledge before.

More importantly, perhaps, they experienced the kind of empathy for history and its lessons that historical fiction can generate: The book is an elegy to what has been lost because of the force of hatred. It does not center on the cellist himself, but places him as both a symbol of loss and regeneration and a tangible inspiration for the other characters.

Next time: Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

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