Monday, November 09, 2009

Can Music Tame the Savage Beast?

In light of the fact that Remembrance (or Veteran's) Day is fast approaching, it seemed appropriate to talk about one of my last reads, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. War comes in all shapes and sizes with all sorts of characteristics. Some hit directly at home and some are merely news stories on CNN. That's kind of how I viewed the conflict in Sarajevo. I was shocked and horrified but it wasn't a part of my daily psyche the way Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be.

Galloway paints a vivid and heartbreaking portrait of a beautiful, historic city under siege and the toll it takes on its inhabitants. The story follows three main stories: one of a man just trying to get water for his family, the second of another man who having sent his family away is facing the risks associated with day to day survival. The third story is of a young girl, "Arrow" who becomes a renowned sniper and dedicates herself to protecting her city, her way.

The most poignant vignette though is the small side story of a cellist who, from his flat window, watches as a shell lands, killing 22 innocent people while standing in a bread line. He takes a little known but tragic piece of music and sits in the mortar hole, determined to play it every day for 22 days to honour the dead. Word gets out about the cellist and when he plays, it seems the whole city goes silent. His act becomes so important, Arrow is assigned to protect him and ensure that he does not become a sniper's target. For one brief moment in time, this musician's simple act of protest and memory becomes the most important thing.

It never ceases to amaze me how seemingly civilized people, in a modern society, can become base and brutal without regard for human life. War is not just about military maneuvers, politician, soldiers fighting for some greater good. It is also about the real people who live through it. The Cellist of Sarajevo does a beautiful job of telling that story and reminding us that remembering should not be limited to those who die fighting, but also those who die just trying to survive.

The Cellist of Sarajevo
Steven Galloway
Knopf Canada