Not long ago, in earlier 2015, I attended a writing festival where I ran into and met the author of this novel (Steven Galloway). Now, I kind of knew him from before. I go to a university which he teaches at, where I’ve taken many creative writing courses, so I’ve had my fair share of close encounters with him. But I had never actually spoken to him. In fact, the closest encounter we had as two people dialoguing was when Steven sent me an email
praising my work for being so beautiful and wanting to pay me to let him mentor me rejecting my sorry ass from the Creative Writing major at the university I go to/he teaches at.
But I digress.
At this writing festival in earlier 2015 there were writing workshops in the day followed by a gala in the evening. Steven was one of the guest readers at the gala (he did a fantastic reading). After the workshops, a friend and I headed to the theatre the gala was to take place in, and spotted Steven standing in the lobby looking confused. We said hi and after a short conversation learned that he was trying to get into the theatre for soundcheck. He sped off quickly after that short exchange to figure things out, leaving my friend and me to wait for the theatre doors to open for the audience. We had a while to wait.
And there was a liquor store nearby.
So needless to say we got hammered for the gala (cue a montage of shotgunning beers in bathroom stalls and mixing vodka into green tea from a vending machine). Moving onwards, though.
The gala began, and Steven’s reading was near the beginning. We sat in the back and listened intently. He was reading the prologue of his book: “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” and part way through reading the curtains pulled back to reveal a cellist playing Albinoni’s Adagio (I’ll talk about later), which complimented Steven’s reading beautifully. The whole affair was quite moving. I remember sitting there, not even listening to the actual words themselves, but just the sounds of them, as dictated by Steven, being carried by the swelling of the cello. If I were to make a metaphor, I would talk about a dock on an ocean, with the rhythmic, punctuating creaking of the wood rising and falling with the waves being the words and the general sounds of water rolling in and softly falling against the sand as the cello. Very complimentary to each other. Very beautiful. And I sat there silent and still until the words stopped, and the ocean threw one last wave against the shore then faded to nothing.
Then I took a sip of my vodka-infused green tea and everything went back to normal.
At the intermission we spotted Steven sitting a few rows up and, as two belligerently drunk youths are prone to do, approached him and probably, overbearingly so, talked at him far too aggressively. I think we may have spooked him a little, to be honest. We were excited to chat with him though, and we were both spouting slightly incoherent things that, when said together, became extremely incoherent to him. I remember him being very taken aback, probably completely unprepared for the situation we put him in. But he tried his best to answer our questions, and even signed two books my friend had brought.
And for that, I respect Steven. I don’t know if he respects us or even likes us in the slightest, or if we just creeped him out. Probably the latter. But he seemed like a very nice and genuine dude, and judging by that prologue, an amazing writer too. So I finally decided that I needed to actually read something from him.
Skip ahead half a year and I finally get around to reading it.
“The Cellist of Sarajevo” follows the lives of three characters living in war-torn Sarajevo during a specific, small time period. Sarajevo is under siege, nobody can leave and nobody can enter (for the most part). Electricity isn’t dependable, clean water can only be accessed from a few locations, food is scarce and expensive and, worst of all, the hills around Sarajevo are infested with snipers and at any moment a civilian of the city could be crossing a street then just fall down dead with a bullet through the head. Mortars rain from the sky almost endlessly.
There is one man, a cellist, who spends his days playing music to try and hold onto hope. One day, as starving citizens line up to buy bread from a market just outside his apartment, a mortar falls, killing 22 people and wounding over 70 others. Every day for the next 22 days the Cellist walks out to the crater in the street where the mortar fell, at 4 PM, and plays Albinoni’s Adagio, one day for each civilian who died in that line.
The cellist is not one of the three protagonists, however he is a symbol and an idea and provokes thought to all three of them, and his days of playing in the street set the time period for the narrative.
The three protagonists are: Kenan, a father and husband who needs to get water for his family; Dragan, an old man who works at a bakery to supply food; Arrow, a sniper in Sarajevo trying to repel the snipers on the hill. And that’s where I stop talking about the plot.
Each of these characters has their own struggles. Their external struggles to survive, but also their internal struggles to define who they are to themselves and what Sarajevo is to them. The cellist is the factor that spurs them to rethink a lot of things and by the end of the novel each character has changed their outlook, each character is filled with a little more hope and a little more definition in who they are and what Sarajevo means to them. To this end, the narrative becomes a dissection and analysis of these characters’ thoughts, emotions, and actions, as well as those of the civilians in Sarajevo around them. At it’s core, this novel is that. This novel is an examination of the human spirit in bleak times, such as a siege where you could literally die at any moment. It shows how people can falter, but it also shows how people can defy expectations and rise above their innate fears to do what is important to them.
And risk the consequences for doing so.
Now, I specifically used the words “dissect” and “analysis” and “examination” because those clinical terms are in themselves descriptive of the writing style used in this novel.
Which carries some pros and cons.
The writing style is perfect for the prologue. It works well to quickly paint a scene in my mind of war-torn Sarajevo, and sets up the cellist character. However, I was not expecting that style to continue through the entire novel. But it did. While not entirely bad, I find the style failed to connect me with the characters. If any of the three protagonists suddenly died, I wouldn’t miss them in the least. The prose always kept me cleanly distanced from them. The cellist i didn’t want to die simply because of what he represented to the people, and Arrow I wanted to live based solely on the fact that she possessed skills that could greatly assist the defenders. But other than that, I did not feel very much specific empathy for the characters.
And yet I wouldn’t want the prose changed. It achieves what I believe it set out to do, to dissect and examine and assess and rationalize the human spirit, to understand it. Plus, despite not being attached to the protagonists, the prose was beautifully executed and the rhythm and sound of it carried me through. I couldn’t put it down. I wasn’t attached to the characters, but I was interested in their next move, their next thought, and what they had to say.
One of my favourite set of lines comes on page 183, a set which succinctly and effectively represents the beauty of Steven’s writing style in this novel:
“In the hills behind him a shell falls. He hears the rattle of automatic gunfire, and then another shell falls. It’s a language, a conversation of violence.”
Take from it what you will.
As beautiful as the prose is, there are a few places where it steps into ugly territory. Specifically, instances where a character did something, thought something, or said something, and a line immediately followed saying “Arrow was surprised by what she did/thought/said.” I don’t like it when characters get surprised by their own thoughts even once, but these people are getting surprised left, right, and centre. It’s as if the characters are each really two entities, the body being it’s own and acting on its own, and their consciousness just kind of there, watching their bodies like a movie.
And I hate lines like that. They’re just unnecessary, mostly untrue, and it makes me think of really badly written genre fiction. Yes, you can do something that surprises yourself, especially an action, such as a reflex you didn’t think you’d have, and perhaps you can say things you didn’t intend to, and you can daydream then suddenly realize how far your mind has wandered, but how often does it happen where you’re literally surprised by all those things as if all those things are not you and you are a consciousness separate from your body and your thoughts. People don’t stop every 5 steps while walking down a sidewalk, totally aghast at what they started thinking.
Perhaps this is just a pet peeve, but I hate that in writing. I hate a character “being surprised by something they themselves just did.” If anything, be more specific. Maybe say they are proud they said something so intelligent, or they regret having let their mind wander to that thought.
STFU with surprised.
I don’t know if this specific thing in writing as been named, but I’m going to call it the Avatar Complex from now on. People are really only characters in a video game and their consciousness is the player sitting behind the screen. They only have so much agency in the avatar’s actions and no matter what they do in-game, the avatar may do something in a cutscene they did not know or think he/she could do and their consciousness, the players, are surprised.
Therefore: Avatar Complex.
And FUCK the Avatar Complex.
Aside from that the prose strayed into some pretty cliche descriptions. One in particular I see all the time in bad fantasy:
“A teenage boy who isn’t old enough to shave.”
That’s an extremely ambiguous description and I think a very arbitrary point of reference. This guy could be anywhere from 10 to well over 20 years old. It’s not like every boy in existence just wakes up on their 16th birthday with a full beard and moustache and that marks them as “old enough to shave.” Some people (like me) had to start shaving in grade 8. Others didn’t need to shave until years after high school. It’s a very cliche description and just not apt at all.
While we’re on the note of bad fantasy, if you read this book, pay attention to the first chapter with Arrow. It describes her and sets her up as an OP character in much the same way a bad fantasy novel sets up the “toughest mercenary in the land” type shit. Not terrible, but I had a laugh while reading it.
Aside from the occasional poorly chosen descriptions, and the excessive surprise characters feel of themselves, though, this novel is amazing. I read it all in two sittings. The writing is beautiful and for the most part intelligent. There are some very tense moments where Steven portrays danger to the characters in very real, very visceral ways. It’s in those few moments that he really pulls the reader into the character and for those short times I felt complete empathy for the characters. And the whole thing just flows so organically.
If you’re a fan of the kind of literary fiction that isn’t excessively introspective and ends up just dragging it’s feet to every little plot point or realization, but a fan of intelligent, well-written fiction nonetheless, then I would recommend this book.
overall score would have to be 8/10. the few hiccups in the writing I mentioned above are where it lost marks, everything else was great.
As always, thanks for reading 🙂