Audiobook Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

(clicking on the image will take you to the cello music played throughout this audiobook.)

You can fill up every spare scrap of land with graves, can turn every park and football field and yard with a graveyard and it will still not account for the dead. There are the dead among the living…musings from Kenan.

The Cellist of Sarajevo was an audiobook I checked out from our public library. What was simply the most enjoyable part of listening to this story was the cello music the reader was greeted with at the start of the CD, during some chapter breaks and at the closing of each CD. It was filled with melancholy, yet was utterly beautiful as well. It thrilled me to listen this story in audiobook format.

However, I can’t say the narration was as beautiful as the music. While Gareth Armstrong does a fabulous job of pronouncing the city and street names, his narration was extremely British, overly theatrical and if I can aptly get the point across, it seemed superior and perhaps condescending. I longed for a Yugo reader! Mr. Armstrong often read like he was performing Shakespeare on stage and it just did not suit this story, in my opinion.  The person that most often came to my mind as one I would love to have read this one was Goran Visnjic. But alas, I understood the issue many, many would have if this had been the selected narrator. Goran is Croatian.

To honour the 22 people killed while trying to buy bread the cello player will sit in the market place for 22 days, and play his cello. The cello player is the only connection between the three main characters from whom this story is told. His presence is simply that – a presence – and may perhaps be considered symbolic much how the girl in the road coat appears in the film, Schindler’s List.

Kenan: We first hear from Kenan and the struggles in adapting to the circumstances of life during this time of war. “The men in the hills” have cut off their water and electricity supply but one morning, Kenan discovers he has been shaving by the light working overhead. He wishes to share this excitement with his family and hurries to wake them, dreaming of a cooked-on-the-stove breakfast. Alas, before he can do so, the light flickers off once more. Each week Kenan must make a harrowing journey to the brewery to gather water for his family and his less-than-gracious elderly neighbour. Through Kenan we experience how harrowing it is to simply cross the street which now means risking sniper fire or heavy shelling in the street. He must make it through the streets and across a bridge and a bridge to get to the brewery. Kenan and his wife maintain hope while joking with one another about picking up a dozen eggs so she can make a chocolate cake, but Kenan is exhausted and so very tired of having to make this journey each week just to secure water.

Dragan: Dragan’s family has fled Sarajevo to Italy and he now lives with his sister and her family. Dragan has no desire to leave Sarajevo because to do so would mean relinquishing his identity and the hope that this glorious city will return to its former self. He is from Sarajevo, he is Sarajevo, and should be leave, it would mean he would cease to exist and perhaps the city he knows and loves so well would never return.

Arrow: Arrow is the only one to actually have a direct connection to the cellist. She has changed her identity and become a sniper to fight against “the men in the hills”. Her assignment is to protect the cellist from snipers and through Arrow we find there is common hope between the men in the hills, and herself, or “us”. She finds that the snipers brought in to kill the cellist do not do so, as they too sit with eyes closed mesmerized by the music. She is disgusted and ashamed at what Sarajevo has become and changed her identity until this war has come to an end. Only at the very end of her story and in the final CD does Arrow speak her true name.

The Cellist of Sarajevo written by Steven Galloway is a work of fiction. It is a story of survival and hope and how 3 separate lives endure living in Sarajevo during war. Understanding it as fiction, I realize this is not an authentic piece of non-fiction to turn to concerning historical accuracy or point of view for the events in Sarajevo. I understand that by naming “them” as “the men in the hills” and “us” as the 3 other characters, Galloway is perhaps choosing a point-of-view. However, for some, a work of fiction should not be allowed to play so loose and free with real events. I came across this review written by Walter Trkla questioning if “fiction is a license to lie” and his dismay at Galloway’s take on the war in Sarajevo. You can read that here.

Hearing the different, yet sometimes similar perspectives of this war through the eyes of Kenan, Dragan and Arrow was interesting and heartbreaking. It only begs the question always asked for this, Why?

3.5 stars for me.