Written by on October 2, 2009

Cellist of Sarajevo

cellist.jpgThis short, haunting little book is based on a real event: a musician sees 22 of his neighbors killed — and scores of others injured — by a mortar attack, while waiting in line to buy bread. To honor them, he defies the senselessness of their deaths (and risks his own) by returning to the spot where they died each day for 22 days, to play Albinoni’s Adagio. According to the first chapter of the book, Adagio is a disputed but haunting piece reconstructed from a purported fragment of a bass line found in the ruins of a firebombed library in Dresden.

The language of the story is dramatically simple, which underscores the desperate lives of its characters. The people of Sarajevo have been reduced by siege to the most basic form of human (or possibly subhuman) survival: finding food and water, and avoiding death by sniper fire. The narrative shifts between the cellist, a husband and father out collecting water for his family and a neighbor, an older baker who has come to find most human contact painful, and a young female sniper doing what she can to defend the city. Their paths never actually meet, but together they make a portrait of the loss of humanity that comes from war.

Here, Kenan, the young father divides the people of Sarajevo into three groups, based on how they react to emergency and death:
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Kenan is able to identify three types of people here. There are those who ran away as soon as the shells fell, their instinct for self-preservation stronger than their sense of altruism or civic duty. Then there are those who didn’t run, who are now covered in the blood of the wounded, and they work with a myopic urgency to help those who can be saved, and to remove those who can’t to go to whatever awaits them next. Then there’s the third type, the group Kenan falls into. They stand, mouths gaping, and watch as others run or help. He’s surprised he didn’t run, isn’t part of the first group, and he wishes he were part of the second.

He looks down at his feet. He’s only a few meters from where the first shell struck . There aren’t many people left here now, no more than a dozen. In places the ground is stained dark red, but where he stands it’s clean. Water runs down from the taps, which are undamaged, and there’s a clear river in the center of the road. The gutter is turning pink, washing away the blood spilled only minutes ago.

photos, from top:

John Burns/New York Times
Lee Henderson

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