In besieged Sarajevo, a cellist, gazing out his window, sees more than 20 people die from a bomb while waiting for bread. In mourning for them, he decided to play at that exact spot for 22 days, to honor all of the dead, putting his life at risk. Meanwhile, Kenan ventures out most days, embracing danger to get water for his family and inexplicably the neighbor, an old woman whom he has never liked. Dragan feels a burden on his family, his wife and son sent away before the war, and finds some comfort in his job at the bakery. Arrow, a sniper, is determined to wreak revenge on the people in the hills who are killing so many of her townspeople. Together, these characters weave a picture of a city under siege, somehow seeking hope but not yet hopeless.
My favorite character, to whom I wished the narrative would keep returning, was Arrow. She is the most interesting of all of them, a killer, but somehow one that we can love and empathize with even as she chooses her targets and plans her strategy. She’s a murderer who has blocked off her heart somehow, drawing a direct line between the girl she was and the sniper that she is now. I can’t imagine not feeling for her. The other characters were less compelling, especially Dragan, who seemed obsessed with a variety of things and complained too much. The cellist didn’t have much of a personality. Kenan was also a compelling character and I enjoyed the discoveries he made and the thoughts he had over the course of the novel.
Perhaps the only problem I had with it is that I liked it while I was reading it, but now that it’s been a while since I finished, its core meanings have not stayed with me particularly well. War is wrong and savage, and it’s lovely that the cellist brought hope into its midst, but I have read other books about Sarajevo and I’m not sure this stands out as much as perhaps it should. I enjoyed its ruminations on survival while people are out to kill you, how the city holds together as one being, and Arrow’s protection of the cellist, but I’m not left with a desire to reread this one, perhaps because I just never developed a deep relationship with the characters.
I am glad I read it and I would recommend The Cellist of Sarajevo, particularly if you enjoy bleak stories about war with a light shining through the darkness.