The Sounds of Peace

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO

By Steven Galloway

Riverhead. 235 pp. $21.95

In this elegiac novel inspired by an actual event during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, Steven Galloway explores the brutality of war and the redemptive power of music. Crafted with unforgettable imagery and heartbreaking simplicity, his small book speaks forcefully to the triumph of the spirit in the face of overwhelming despair.

"He can't believe he will stop the war," thinks Arrow, the young female sniper assigned to protect a cellist who has vowed to play 22 concerts outside the bakery where 22 people were recently gunned down. "He can't believe he will save lives. . . . Perhaps he has gone insane." As Serb and Yugoslav soldiers battle, innocent citizens venture out of their homes to find simple necessities, risking death from snipers in the hills surrounding the city. "One moment the people are walking or running through the street, and then they drop abruptly as though they were marionettes and their puppeteer had fainted."

This tale of peril and protest is told through the eyes of four people -- Arrow, who has taken that name because she has become a killing machine; Kenan, a man who must navigate the perilous streets to find water for his family and for a quarrelsome neighbor; Dragan, an older man who works at one of the few operating bakeries in the city; and the fearless cellist. Based on the true story of Vedran Smailovic, who played Albinoni's "Adagio" daily in honor of the dead, Galloway's fictional cellist is more than a symbol of resistance. As Arrow listens to him play, "she leans back into the wall. She's no longer there. Her mother is lifting her up, spinning her around and laughing. The warm tongue of a dog licks her arm."

When the moment comes for Arrow to shoot a gunman who she knows is stalking the cellist, she has him in her sights, but she sees that "his finger isn't on the trigger." Realizing that he's enjoying the music, too, she is "sure of two things. The first is that she does not want to kill this man, and the second is that she must."

What happens to our humanity in the midst of violence and hatred? How do we maintain dignity and kindness in the face of atrocities? How do we reclaim ourselves? Listening to the cellist, Arrow "let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat. . . . Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. The men on the hills didn't have to be murderers. . . . She didn't have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that."

-- Eugenia Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books and artistic director of the Vail Valley Music Festival.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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