babble book club: 'The Cellist of Sarajevo' by Steven Galloway

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bound but not gagged bound but not gagged's picture
babble book club: 'The Cellist of Sarajevo' by Steven Galloway

Our next book club selection is The Cellist of Sarajevo by Canadian author Steven Galloway and the final discussion will be on Friday September 20 at 2pm EST on this thread.

Check out the books blog post for more information on the club and the book itself.

As always, everyone feel free to post comments and questions during the read, but please don't reveal large plot points that may spoil aspects of the read for others!

This book is widely available in libraries and secondhand and independent bookstores as well.

Looking forward to the read and this discussion with everyone!

Issues Pages: 
DaveW

reminds me of the phrase from the early 1990s: "only odd-numbered world wars start in Sarajevo"...

 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

DaveW wrote:

reminds me of the phrase from the early 1990s: "only odd-numbered world wars start in Sarajevo"...

 

I have never heard this before ... background info for interest DW?

Unionist
Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

I have yet to start this book because of the subject matter (as posted in our facebook group). Am I the only one?

KenS

I didnt see the Facebook discussion. But despite the subject matter, its not a heavy book.

I can see that the things described in the book would sound just plain awful when removed from the story.

Caissa

Read it on the weekend. A strong affirmation of humanity and possibly the best written book we have read for BBC to date.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Caissa wrote:
the best written book we have read for BBC to date.

A strong endorsement! I confess (like a certain rabble publisher) that I haven't picked up my copy yet. With the way this week is looking, I'm guessing it will be a cram session before the twentieth. Looking forward to it though.

Considering the conflicted leftist politics of the Balkan states civil wars and Western intervention and so on (that may or may not have been discussed on babble at some point...), I wonder if there's any overt political message that slips into this book?

Caissa

I think the message is more about the endurance of the soul. Reminded me of an old Viktor Frankl quote. Essentially, the quote  argues that everything can be taken from humans except their ability to choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Time has flown! Our final discussion is next week! Wow!

Caissa

Get reading, peeps!

infracaninophile infracaninophile's picture

Picked it up from the library yesterday. Onward and upward!

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Caissa is primed and ready for some book chatting!

Caissa

As long as I can remember the plot by then. Others need to read quicker and have shorter periods of time between choosing the book and discussing itWink You can't let life get in the way of reading.

KenS

Catchfire wrote:

Considering the conflicted leftist politics of the Balkan states civil wars and Western intervention and so on (that may or may not have been discussed on babble at some point...), I wonder if there's any overt political message that slips into this book?

Agree with Caissa... there are no strictly political messages. Its about endurance and humanity, in spite of it all... cruel ethical dilemnas included.

For me, it has been years since I read it.

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Caissa wrote:
Get reading, peeps!

ruh roh

derrick derrick's picture

I agree with Caissa's assessment: the opening chapters, in particular, are among the best constructed I've read. Arrow is the most compelling sniper I've come across -- in any medium. 

And, no, despite the epigraph on war from Trotsky, the novel is quite carefully not political -- almost entirely avoiding reference to ethnicities, religions and geopolitics related to the war(s). 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Yes the opening chapters were particularly succinct and gripping.

This part rattles through my brain:

Still, six lanes of pavement and a median for the trams hardly seems to Dragan like an alley

p.39 references Sniper Alley.

When in Sarajevo in 2009, I stayed in an apartment located on Sniper Alley (still riddled with bullet holes) and one of my first thoughts was "they called this an alley?"

It is indeed a massive six lane highway and there is nowhere to hide.

kim elliott kim elliott's picture

@Kaitlin: you stayed in Sniper Alley? 

Caissa

Her name is Arrow, Kim. Wink

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

kim elliott wrote:

@Kaitlin: you stayed in Sniper Alley? 

Oh Caissa.

Yes we did. A women used her apartment as a hostel -- bunk beds in her living room -- because she felt it was important to open up her home to vistors wanting to experience Sarajevo and give them the information that she felt was important to Sarajevo. She also made sure to take every vistor she had out to the tunnel -- quite a drive from Sniper Alley -- to highlight the dangers of the journey, and how when most people arrived they were turned away.

Also, there is a story about people going through the tunnel to the free zone and upon arrival the UN turning them back. 

The tunnel is now a museum as well, and they have left a portion of it open so people are able to walk through it to feel what it is like. It tries to wash away the negativity -- aka the corruprtion -- of the tunnel and show videos of relief workers bringing in food and children and families being saved.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Discussion starting! Thanks everyone for reading and joining in!

I'm going to go ahead and just start with my book reading experience to kick it all off!

So, unsurprisingly, I left this read to the last minute; however, it was put off because I was really nervous about starting this read due to the subject matter.

After Caissa's endorsement and the timeline crunch I dove in and was immediately hooked. Not only was it superbly written, but the eloquent statements about life was beautiful. I really loved this book.

Caissa

I have to leave in 25 minutes so I'll jump right in. The phrase "man cannot live by bread alone' went through my head while reflecting on the book.  Kenan and Dragan were attempting to secure bread and water, two of lives basic needs.  Those whom the cellist was honouring had died standing in line for bread. The cllist act of memory was ennobling of live in the midst of death and affirmed that there are greater things than the bottom levels of Mazlow's hierarchy of needs. Arrow eventually regains her humanity at the end when she reclaims her birth name. Just some thoughts to kick the discussion off.

derrick derrick's picture

Kaitlin, 

How much of the book did you recognize from places you visited in Sarajevo? When were you there? 

I'm guessing the non-fiction disclaimer was because the details of the politics of the war were not included, but that most of the physical markers, buildings, bridges etc were based on the real city... 

Unionist

Arrow had "set aside" her birth name along with her peace-time life temporarily, so that she could keep both lives entirely separate and resume the real one when the war was over. The war ended for her in an unexpected way, but she got to resume that life and, as Caissa says, her humanity. It was impressive.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

I agree with you Caissa, and found this quote to really sum up the book -- the characters he created -- and potentially even war:

There's no such thing as bravery. There are no hereos, no villians, no cowards. There's what he can do, and what he can't. There's right and wrong and nothing else. The world is binary. Shading will come later.

Each characters moves through right and wrong and that grey area -- Arrow with who to kill/justify her killing, Dragan with saving Eliana/the hate man, Keenan with getting water for his neighbour/joining the army/being scared.

All seemed to land on, you just do.

Caissa

This book has stayed with me longer than any book we have read in BBC. A couple weeks later the feelings of reading it and the behaviour of the characters have stayed with me. A tough book for our next choice to follow.

derrick derrick's picture

Yeah, the writing really is superb. I've often found films or novels with multiple POV structures annoying, but this was completely compelling from the get go. I especially enjoyed Arrow; a female sniper who's explicitly trying to observe some rules of war and sense of humanity while killing people. The prose is minimalist but not simplistic -- if that makes sense. 

kim elliott kim elliott's picture

Caissa, that is a beautiful comment, I love your connection between the search for bread, and water, to Mazlow's hierachy of needs. Seems intentional, when you put it that way! I would love to know if it was.

I'm more perplexed by the character Arrow. Compared to Kenan and Dragan, her charactar rang hollow to me. While in an incredible economy of words the author brought Dragan and Kenan to life, Arrow to me anyway, always read as more contrived. I wondered whether that was intentional.

And Kaitlin, what an incredible experience.  I can see now why you had a hard time opening the book! I have the most superficial of experiences of travelling through Yugoslavia - way back when it was still called that.

kim elliott kim elliott's picture

Derrick and I had very different responses to the Arrow character apparently :)

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

derrick wrote:

Kaitlin, 

How much of the book did you recognize from places you visited in Sarajevo? When were you there? 

I'm guessing the non-fiction disclaimer was because the details of the politics of the war were not included, but that most of the physical markers, buildings, bridges etc were based on the real city... 

Both my partner and I have read this book, and visited Sarajevo together and chatted about it a bit, and both felt that the places he described were familiar and that added a level to the book for us.

In his acknowledgements, he notes the people who told him stories of the war, and it seems he traveled to Sarajevo to meet a friends father as well.

Though Sarajevo is slightly repaired, two things really stood out for both from the book and in real life:

1. The discussion of the mortars and the bombing -- buildings are still larger decimated. The bobsled track, once a source of pride from hosting the Olympics, was blown to bits. Everywhere in Sarajevo where a bomb landed, the city filled it in with pink cement, and these were named the Sarajevo roses. It is striking and really saddening to walk around the city as it is riddled with this charming pink spots.

2. When one of the charaters -- I think arrow while at her friends funeral maybe -- mentions the open graves and how they will be filled within the weeks end. Sarajevo is overrun with cemetaries, and again, they create a strange beautiful landschape of whiteness that is cloaked in sadness.

It seemed like every open space -- park, field, whatever -- had been turned into a cemetary.

I definitely felt myself moving through the streets as I read, but Galloway's writing is so vivid, I think most could.

Unionist

The complete (and for me, welcome) absence of any attempt to explain the siege and the slaughter by means of any politics or religion or ideology struck me as a concerted effort to portray the consequences of war on civilians. Sarajevo is reduced to us vs. them, without nuance, and not for the first time in its history. They hate us - we don't know why (it doesn't matter why) - so they try to randomly kill us, and we hate them for that, even though we would never do the same. The only real departure and ambiguity I noticed in that dichotomy came when Arrow, near the end, encountered "them" right in the midst of "us", and decided instantly, instinctively, and (yes) heroically that she could never adapt to that.

Caissa

 Thanks for the kind words, Kim. I think it might have been intentional because she had left her life in abeyance. I didn't really feel empathy for her until the last chapter.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

@U

I wonder why the author felt the need to leave the political connotations out of the story and reduce it to an us v them...

But by using that stucture, I felt it brought life to Arrow's story because it was difficult to figure out what "side" she was associated with. Was her first boss corrupt or honorable, was the Colonel corrupt or onto to something. Was Arrow unknowingly helping the corrupt side in the first place by relegating herself to only shooting her own targets and then protecting the Cellist.

The structure made it difficult to discern who was us an them, as I'm sure has been echoed in real life.

kim elliott kim elliott's picture

I agree with you Unionist, re: the surprising (at first) absence of any political or historical context to the book.  The story becomes a kind of universal story of life, and staying human, in a time of war.   I found myself thinking alot about what is currently happening in Syria as I read this book.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

derrick wrote:

I especially enjoyed Arrow; a female sniper who's explicitly trying to observe some rules of war and sense of humanity while killing people. The prose is minimalist but not simplistic -- if that makes sense. 

I found I was really drawn to Arrow's story as well! And liked her! I don't know what Kim's problem is ... Wink

Well I found all three main people really compelling, especially their candidness with themselves about fear. It is not an easy thing to admit to yourself that you are scared, scared of dying or feel you are a coward.

Obviously all three prove that even if that have those thoughts, they overcome them to do what is right.

Unionist

For some reason, I found the Arrow chapters the most captivating - maybe because I didn't have a clue about her motivations, and I felt suspense about some big revelations around the corner...

My mind kept wandering to stories my parents told of their own fear, incomprehension, and survival, in the face of an enemy whose motives they couldn't begin to comprehend, and it made no difference in real life anyway.

But I think the incomprehension, even the (brief) confusion of "us" and "them", was vital to what kim said about staying human in a time of war. Combatants can't be fully human. All their decisions and actions are "whipped" (heh, sorry), and any humanity that impedes that discipline must be set aside.

The only ascribing of any motivation beyond "hate" that I noticed came in a brief passage where Arrow says/thinks that the shooters in the hills want to be reviled - that they aspire to victimhood - and that's why they turned to tanks, guns, etc. It came and went so quickly that I didn't have time to think it through. Maybe I imagined more than was intended.

And Kenan feeling constantly scared and guilty about not joining the armed struggle... while performing his reluctant acts of kindness for his unappreciative neighbour... that was stunningly human, I thought.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Also, while reseraching this book, apparently the real life Cellist was initially quite upset with the book saying

"They steal my name and identity. Nobody can take the rights to that from me. It's quite clear that it is me in the book ... I expect damages for what they have done, an apology and compensation... They are using my picture and advertising their product with my name... I never blessed this project.

The two eventually met in real life and smoothed things over a bit.

Galloway also responded that basically he always noted that while inspired by the photographs and story, he has always noted this was a work of fiction and the Cellist in his book fictionalized.

derrick derrick's picture

Unionist - yes I think that's exactly why the politics of the siege were left unexplained. I can imagine an argument that says this is oversimplified or even unhelpful treatment of war, but in this case I think it makes for a more powerful indictment of war. Does anyone know of more historical fiction style novels done about Sarajevo or the wars in Yugoslavia more generally?

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Beautiful comments, U.

The humanity that was captured in this book is stunning, especially those tiny moments he captured so well. Arrow putting her rifle in the bed of flowers, Keenan going back for the neighbour's water bottle's he left on the side, Dragan removing the medicine.

Also that desire to protect the city. It was there home, and if they leave it, the others have won. Dying seemed at points more of a victory or thorn than leaving ever cold.

The sense of pride in Sarajevo who really instilled in the book.

Unionist

derrick wrote:

Does anyone know of more historical fiction style novels done about Sarajevo or the wars in Yugoslavia more generally?

God, yes - haven't thought of it for decades, read it in my teens - The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andric. Gotta go find it again!

ETA: Of course, it was written long before the post-Tito murderous frenzies that engulfed Yugoslavia, but still.

 

 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Unionist wrote:

derrick wrote:

Does anyone know of more historical fiction style novels done about Sarajevo or the wars in Yugoslavia more generally?

God, yes - haven't thought of it for decades, read it in my teens - The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andric. Gotta go find it again!

ETA: Of course, it was written long before the post-Tito murderous frenzies that engulfed Yugoslavia, but still.

More recently, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Olbrecht (25 when she wrote it!). Fiction.

And Sarajevo Marlboro by Miljenko Jergovic -- collectiong of stories about the war. He is Croatian  born and stayed in Sarajevo throughout the war.

Unionist

Kaitlin wrote:

The humanity that was captured in this book is stunning, especially those tiny moments he captured so well. Arrow putting her rifle in the bed of flowers, Keenan going back for the neighbour's water bottle's he left on the side, Dragan removing the medicine.

Also that desire to protect the city. It was there home, and if they leave it, the others have won. Dying seemed at points more of a victory or thorn than leaving ever cold.

Oh nicely done, Kaitlin, now my eyes are misting over. If my keyboard short-circuits, I'm sending you the bill!

Cry

 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

bills bills bills -- add em to the pile!

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Not to keep bringing up my time in Sarajevo, but I'm going to again just to qualify that above point Laughing

The love of the city and pride in being from Sarajevo was something that was overwhelming there. I mean, of all the places I have been, people are always -- usually -- proud to be who they are, but they was something inspring and utterly charming about Sarajevans.

They wanted to rebuild, they want to share their country with others (minus some notable exceptions) they want to be allowed to just live in peace and happiness.

The roses and other markings from the war seem to solidify this unity in most people there and it was really lovely to witness and to take part in. 

My mind always boggles at the fact the seige last SO LONG and these people lived through it. And lived through it when their relief aid was being taken and sold (that part was true in the book), when they had no running water or electricity, when life was just constant fear. Incredible.

The universality of the book very much echoes a lot of situations today Kim, rightly said.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

I have to bounce off for a bit! But thanks everyone for joining!

I look forward to any more conversation on this book as well, and let's all mill over our next selection this weekend and come back at it on Monday!

sherpa-finn

Quickly from work ....

Interesting comments from Unionist and others re the relatively "politics free" nature of this terrific book and how that seems to highlight the basic humanity of the various characters. As someone who has worked in the humanitarian sector, this is very much my lived experience of how conflict and disaster plays out in the lives of 'ordinary' people. 

But I must say that I have been regularly disappointed on Babble pages as to how this basic humanity of victims of violence is then denied by some Babblers, determined to impose distant, remote and often irrelevant political analyses and agendas onto these situations and the suffering of the people living through it all on the ground.

Unionist

Thanks so much for doing this, Kaitlin. I was a bit nervous about participating, but everyone here was very, um, tolerant! Now, can we send the thread link to Steven Galloway so he can tell us what the book was really about?

 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

sherpa-finn wrote:

But I must say that I have been regularly disappointed on Babble pages as to how this basic humanity of victims of violence is then denied by some Babblers, determined to impose distant, remote and often irrelevant political analyses and agendas onto these situations and the suffering of the people living through it all on the ground.

hmm I'm intrigued by this SF and would be interested to know more, but don't want to create tension in the forum!

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Unionist wrote:

Thanks so much for doing this, Kaitlin. I was a bit nervous about participating, but everyone here was very, um, tolerant! Now, can we send the thread link to Steven Galloway so he can tell us what the book was really about?

 

Yes, I was unable to pull everything together this time, but maybe I can dig up some interviews or something...

kim elliott kim elliott's picture

Hey all, sorry I had to pop off to do ... um rabble work :) but where Arrow goes, it felt like a different novel to me. Kenan and Dragan were in one story, both in terms of the style of character development, and in terms of the flow of time in the story. Their characters moved in a world that was very tightly developed, with a great deal of detail, and in ways that seemed (to me) to be very realistic.   Arrow's narrative was developed very differently - with all the chase scenes for instance, and the more highly symbolic acts of putting her gun on the flowers  - it makes for a great story - but not believable in the "real world" way that the other characters develop. I believe their characters. I don't believe hers (though wouldn't it be nice to think there were snipers like her out there).  The time sequence her character follows doesn't match the others at all  - it spans over days - which struck me as strange in a multi point of view novel.  The character development is so different, that, upon reflection, I think it must have been a literary device the author chose to use.  The comments here about the various sides of war, and how it is Arrow's sequences that drive home the fact that there is not only a "them" or "us" but several gradations within that framework -- may explain why the development of her story is so different (i.e. it serves that purpose).

I've enjoyed this discussion and this book! Look forward to the next!

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