Wednesday, August 12, 2009

REVIEW: The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway


The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway. Published 2008 by Riverhead. Literary fiction.

I may the be the only person on the face of the Earth, but I didn't really like The Cellist of Sarajevo.

Oh yes, it is a very moving literary novel of a city under siege, set during the Balkan War when the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was being shelled at its citizens shot at by Serb forces during a bitter, uncompromising, senseless war. The siege lasted from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996, the longest in modern history. Galloway writes sensitive portraits of ordinary people under extreme situations, an environment in which going for fresh water becomes a gamble with life itself, when at any moment bullets can rain from the sky and kill an innocent person. And it's beautifully written.

But it's all just too easy, you know, writing poetic anti-war fiction about innocent people under trying circumstances. There's nothing to grab on to. Or almost nothing. The narrative goes back and forth between four characters- Dragan and Kenan, two nearly-indistinguishable ordinary men, a nameless cellist determined to play for an hour every day and a sniper named Arrow, determined to protect him. The cellist and Arrow are based on real people, and Arrow is the only thing that kept me reading. Complex and full of contradictions, both breathlessly ruthless and breathlessly human, she is a fascinating fictional creation. Every moment with her is loaded with razor-sharp suspense and relentless forward motion. I wish the whole book had been about her.

The thing is, there's nothing really wrong with the book and I know many readers have loved it. For me, do-gooder liberal fiction with its simplistic no-kidding morality is just boring. It's easy to read- it does nothing to challenge the reader or make the reader stretch or think. It merely evokes pity and a pleasant, comfortable sense of righteous outrage. Which is why I enjoyed Arrow so much- she's no innocent, and it's not so easy to like her yet Galloway manages the neat trick of making us care about her despite the fact that she too is a bloodless killer. As it is, The Cellist of Sarajevo is a perfectly fine, well-written book, a quick read that most people will like more than I did.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.