Sunday, May 25, 2008

Compassion blossoms in unexpected situations

The Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted for four years between 1992 and 1996, was fought between the Bosnian Serbs who had occupied the hills surrounding Sarajevo and the largely Muslim local population. One of the bloodiest periods in recent memory, it resulted in the death of more than 10,000 people.

Not long after the siege began in 1992, 22 people were killed by a mortar shell as they queued outside a bakery in central Sarajevo. Deeply perturbed by this random act of violence, Vedran Smilovic, a cellist with the Sarajevo Opera, played a composition by Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni for 22 consecutive days to honor the memory of the dead.

In The Cellist of Sarajevo (Riverhead, 256 pages, $21.95), author Steven Galloway uses the story of Smilovic to construct a moving portrayal of the survival of the human spirit in times of conflict. Smilovic's gesture ties the different strands of the book, involving three people who come to recognize both the futility of war and the insidious ways in which it threatens our shared humanity.

We are first introduced to Arrow, a female sniper who works as an undercover operator for the resistance being mounted by the local army. Arrow's father died a soldier, but was against Arrow's involvement in the military. It is this realization that weighs on Arrow's every move, as she is assigned to guard the cellist's life against enemy fire. What starts as doubt about the use of force turns into a certainty that violence is no way to eliminate the "other."

Then there is Kenan, who, like others, lives the life of a fugitive. Every few days he undertakes a journey across town to a brewery to collect fresh water supplies for his family and his neighbor, Mrs. Ristovski. The third story is of Dragan, who lives with his sister and her husband. His wife and son were sent away to safety when the war started, and he walks every other day to get free food at the bakery he works at.

Through the perilous journeys that Kenan and Dragan undertake across the strife-torn city, Galloway gifts us valuable insights into how compassion can blossom, unexpectedly, during mindless atrocities. The Cellist of Sarajevo is an accomplished, important work.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times, curiously, under someone else's byline.

Update: The byline has been corrected.

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