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By the Chapter, Day 5 | The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

April 17, 2009

cellistofsarajevo1Welcome to By the Chapter. This week’s featured book is The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. I’d like to thank Elizabeth from As usual, I need more bookshelves for sharing hosting duties with me this week.


If you’re not familiar with The Cellist of Sarajevo here’s a little background on the book from Amazon:
Canadian Galloway (Ascension) delivers a tense and haunting novel following four people trying to survive war-torn Sarajevo. After a mortar attack kills 22 people waiting in line to buy bread, an unnamed cellist vows to play at the point of impact for 22 days. Meanwhile, Arrow, a young woman sniper, picks off soldiers; Kenan makes a dangerous trek to get water for his family; and Dragan, who sent his wife and son out of the city at the start of the war, works at a bakery and trades bread in exchange for shelter. Arrow’s assigned to protect the cellist, but when she’s eventually ordered to commit a different kind of killing, she must decide who she is and why she kills. Dragan believes he can protect himself through isolation, but that changes when he runs into a friend of his wife’s attempting to cross a street targeted by snipers. Kenan is repeatedly challenged by his fear and a cantankerous neighbor. All the while, the cellist continues to play. With wonderfully drawn characters and a stripped-down narrative, Galloway brings to life a distant conflict.


This story is based around true events, The Siege of Sarajevo.

My co-host Elizabeth said it best, “this book is mesmerizing”. I was immediately drawn into this wonderfully crafted story surrounding the siege of Sarajevo. The author does a superb job of painting the pain of war on the ordinary citizen. It is a roller coaster ride of emotional intensity. This story is driven not by page turning action but stunning sequences written in wrenching prose. This book gets high marks from me as a recommended read. It’s one of those books that I occasionally come across that I want share right and then with whoever is nearest to me. I want to talk about what I’m reading. Usually my reading is a solitary endeavor and that’s why I’ve enjoyed reading The Cellist of Sarajevo with Elizabeth and others this week. It’s given me the opportunity to share my thoughts about this exceptional book. It will, when I eventually get around to it, make my favorites list.

Because I want to do justice to this story I’ve decided to let the characters speak for themselves. I’ve gone back and picked out selected passages for each giving a voice to small pieces of their lives. If you enjoy what you read here then this is a book that will satisfy the yearning hunger of your reading soul.

“Once he’s in the hall, he sits down on the steps and presses his forehead to his knees. He doesn’t want to go out. He doesn’t want to have to walk through the streets of his city and look at the buildings and with every step be afraid that he’s about to be killed. But he has no choice. He knows that if he wants to be one of the people who rebuild the city, one of the people who have the right even to speak about how Sarajevo should repair itself, then he has to go outside and face the men on the hills. His family needs water, and he will get it for them. 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.”

“Today is the last cellist will play. Everyone who died in the street while waiting for bread will be accounted for. Kenan knows no one will pay for the people who died at the brewery, or those who were shot crossing the street, or any of the other victims of countless attacks. It would take an army of cellists. But he’s heard what there was to hear. It was enough.” [The Cellist of Sarajevo, Kenan chapter, Kindle sections 2645-2657]

“There is no way to tell which version of the lie is the truth. Is the real Sarajevo the one where people were happy, treated each other well, lived without conflict? Or is the real Sarajevo the one he sees today, where people are trying to kill each other, where bullets fly down from the hills and the buildings crumble to the ground? Dragan can only ask the question. He doesn’t think there’s any way to know for sure.”

“He knows which lie he will tell himself. The city he lives in is full of people who will someday go back to treating each other like humans. The war will end, and when it’s looked back upon it will be with regret, not with fond memories of faded glory. In the meantime, he will continue to walk the streets. Streets that will not have dead and discarded bodies lying in them. He will behave now as he hopes everyone will someday behave. 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. And if he wishes to live, he must do what he can to prevent the world he wants to live in from fading away. As long as there’s war, life is a preventative measure.” [The Cellist of Sarajevo, Dragan chapter, Kindle sections 2662-2679]

“In the Second World War, Vraca was a place where the Nazis tortured and killed those who resisted them. The names of the dead are carved on the steps, but at the time few fighters used their real names. They took new names that said more about them than any boastful story told by drunks in a bar, names that defied the governments who later tried to twist their deeds into propaganda. It’s said they took these new names so their families wouldn’t be in danger, so they could slip in and out of two lives. But Arrow believes they took these names so they could separate themselves from what they had to do, so that the person who fought and killed could someday be put away. To hate people because they hated her first, and then to hate them because of what they’ve done to her, has created a desire to separate the part of her that will fight back, that will enjoy fighting back, from the part that never wanted to fight in the first place. Using her real name would make her no different from the men she kills. It would be a death greater than the end of her life.” [The Cellist of Sarajevo, Arrow Chapter, Kindle sections 133-149]

“She hears one of them take a step back, knows he’s about to kick in the door. She closes her eyes, recalls the notes she heard only yesterday, a melody that is no longer there but feels very close. Her lips move, and a moment before the door splinters off its hinges she says, her voice strong and quiet, ‘My name is Alisa’.” [The Cellist of Sarajevo, Arrow chapter, Kindle sections 2763-69]

The Cellist
“He played for twenty-two days, just as he said he would. Every day at four o’clock in the afternoon, regardless of how much fighting was going on around him. Some days he had an audience. Other days there was so much shelling that no one in their right mind would linger in the street. It didn’t appear to make any difference to him. He always played exactly the same way.” [The Cellist of Sarajevo, Arrow chapter, Kindle section 2723-29]

“Arrow closed her eyes, and when she opened them the music was over. In the street, the cellist sat on his stool for a very long time. He was crying. His head leaned forward and a few strands of inky hair fell across his brow. One hand moved to cover his face while the other cradled the body of the cello. After a while he stood up, and he walked over to the pile of flowers that had been steadily growing since the day the mortar fell. He looked at it for a while, and then dropped his bow into the pile. No one on the street moved. They held their breath, waiting for him to say something. But the cellist didn’t speak. There was nothing left for him to say.” [The Cellist of Sarajevo, Arrow chapter, Kindle section 2740-46]


If you’ve read, or are currently reading, The Cellist of Sarajevo please share your thoughts with us.

This week’s reading scheduling:
Monday: The Printed Page
Tuesday: Elizabeth from As usual, I need more bookshelves
Wednesday: The Printed Page
Thursday: Elizabeth from As usual, I need more bookshelves
Friday: The Printed Page/Elizabeth from As usual, I need more bookshelves



  1. April 17, 2009 7:19 am

    Great post! Like you, sometimes I think letting the book speak for itself is the best way to go. I’m pretty sure this will be on my list of best books of the year, also – I can’t imagine reading 10 more books that affect me the was this one has. Thanks for a great week! =)

    • April 17, 2009 5:44 pm

      I thought letting the book speak for itself would be the most effective. I really wanted others to get a feel for what you and I had had the pleasure of reading this week.

      Thanks for hosting with me. 🙂

  2. April 17, 2009 2:06 pm

    I’ve been mesmerized by the discussion you two have been having for this one. I definitely want to read it!

    • April 17, 2009 5:42 pm

      Maybe it should be the first book you read on your new Kindle. It is very, very good and I don’t often give books high marks.

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