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By Steven Galloway
New York: Riverhead Books, 2008
ISBN # 978-1-59448-365-3
235 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2012

One character in this novel wonders what is the reality of Sarajevo? Is it the historic beautiful city of its history and renown, or is the “real” Sarajevo this hell of the four years of war, the 10,000 dead and 50,000 wounded. The novel itself seems to answer this question since we follow the very slow changes in several main characters from those who sort of accept this horror of the war as the new reality, but yet do eventually give up that path and return as citizens of the “old” Sarajevo.

I really had no idea what I would be reading about. I was attracted to the novel because I so love the music of Tomaso Albinoni and it is with that music that the novel begins. We read of a discovery of just 4 bars of music found in bombed out Dresden in 1945 which led an Italian musicologist to reconstruct a piece he called Albinoni’s Adagio. The rest of that story plays out in the rediscovery of Albinoni’s music.

My own discovery of Albinoni’s music was some 50 years later when I stumbled upon a tiny church on a bitter cold and snowy night in Florence. I had taken a walk, gotten lost in a residential area and turned a corner to a lit church and people. I went to get information on how to get back to the city center and to get warm. There was going to be a concert. I went to it, but didn’t get warm. The church had no heat. However, it was a concert featuring the music of Tomaso Albinoni and I came away reeling with the joy of that music.

Now that music has led me to this novel of the war in Sarajevo. A main character whom we never meet is supposedly this musician who discovered Albinoni’s music in Dresden and who is himself a citizen of Sarajevo and the principal cellist in the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra. After a horrible incident in which 22 died in a bomb blast, he resolves to return to war-torn Sarajevo and each day for 22 days, to sit outside and play Albinoni’s Adagio as a symbol of the better things in life and to reflect the old world of normalcy in Sarajevo.

His “statement” is a threat to the enemy of snipers on the hill. However, where he sits, while outside and exposed, is not exposed to the hills where the snipers hide and shoot. They cannot kill him from above, so they will send a top-flight sniper into the city to where he plays. For both sides this event of the cellist’s 22 days of playing is an important statement. Those in power within the city are resolved to protect the cellist if at all possible, and this can only be done by a counter-sniper who can killer the sniper they know will be sent.

This task falls to the unlikely young woman, Arrow. A university student, who was the crack shooter of the rifle team, has been recruited as a sniper and is the best in Sarajevo. She sets herself up in one of the bombed out buildings near the cellist, trying to figure out where the sniper will set up and how she protects the cellist. It’s a chilly and scary game of cat and mouse, and the days are ticking away.

Arrow isn’t really “Arrow.” She has assumed that name, presumably since her shooting is like an arrow fired true. She tells us:

“I am Arrow because I hate them. The woman you knew hated nobody.”

There are two other characters of note, Kenan and Dragan. They are fairly ordinary fellows living desperate lives in the city. They don’t figure into the main drama of the protection of the cellist, but seem to play the role in the novel of examples of how ordinary people are living and surviving in the war-ravaged city. I understand the usefulness of that information and I was happy for it. But I don’t think the manner of their position was well-treated by the author. The novel rotates from Kenan to Dragan to Arrow and round and round, as though they each play a commensurate role.

But Arrow and the cellist, who never “speaks” in the novel, but only plays, are the main story line. Kenan and Dragan are side-bar information, useful, but not central. Yet the structure of the novel gives them the appearance of a more important role than they really play.

Kenan does have a small moment in the drama. One day when the cellist is playing a man is shot in the area near to where he is playing. A TV cameraman wants to get this shot and is quickly setting up his equipment, but Kenan, risking his life, rushes into the open to pull this dead man away from the cameraman and protect, in his small way, the people from becoming just more of a “juicy” news story.

However, little by little all three of these main characters, Kenan, Dragan and Arrow are changed. The war has worn them down. They had, little by little, internalized the horror, the defeatism, the agony and despair of the war. But, in significant measure because of the heroism of the cellist, they regain their decent humanity and each in his or her way displays the humanness and decency they had before the war. The cellist succeeds without even knowing it.

The author never tells us anything at all about who the residents are and who the enemy is. A much understated story suggests that he wants the message to apply to much more than just this particular war he uses as his setting.

They are in such sharp contrast to Colonel Edin Karaman, Arrow’s “boss” at the end of the novel. He doesn’t have any of that humanity which the other three demonstrate. He is filled with hatred and has a very simple view of the situation:

“Some in this city like to think that this war is more complicated than it really is. In case you are one of these people I will tell you the reality of Sarajevo. There is us, and there is them. Everyone, and I mean everyone, falls into one of these two groups. I hope you know where you stand.”

Another soldier shares that view and tells her: “There are two sides to this war, Arrow. Ours and theirs. There is no in-between.”

But Arrow has had a deeply touching moment. She has located the sniper in another building one day and she was going to kill him the second he moved to shoot the cellist, but the sniper didn’t try to shoot. He, too, was moved by the heroism of the cellist and the power of the Adagio.

“The sniper had the shot. He had it the whole time. But he didn’t shoot. He was listening to the music.”

The novel was deeply touching and very sad at the same time. So many dead, so many wounded, the raw brutality of war played out in such a story-book city and setting. So very sad. The novel is gripping toward the end, and while not structurally perfect, it is quite well worth reading.

In an afterword the author tells us that something very much like the basic frame event – the cellist playing for 22 days, actually happened. After 22 people died in a mortar attack on a market on May 27, 1992, Vedran Smailovic, a local cellist did play the Adagio in G Minor in a public square for

Bob Corbett


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