Historical Fiction War

The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway

23 March 2019
The Cellist of Sarajevo Book Cover The Cellist of Sarajevo
Steven Galloway
Atlantic Books

Snipers in the hills overlook the shattered streets of Sarajevo. Knowing that the next bullet could strike at any moment, the ordinary men and women below strive to go about their daily lives as best they can. Kenan faces the agonizing dilemma of crossing the city to get water for his family. Dragan, gripped by fear, does not know who among his friends he can trust. And Arrow, a young woman counter-sniper must push herself to the limits - of body and soul, fear and humanity.

Told with immediacy, grace and harrowing emotional accuracy, The Cellist of Sarajevo shows how, when the everyday act of crossing the street can risk lives, the human spirit is revealed in all its fortitude - and frailty.


The futility and horror of war are felt most acutely and despairingly when the young, the helpless and the innocent, bear the ultimate price. At 4 pm on 26th May 1992, in a war-torn Sarajevo marketplace, a mortar bomb killed 22 people, mostly women, as they queued for bread. In homage to each of those lost souls and in protest against the violence and conflict, an unknown Cellist enters the square at 4 pm each day afterwards for 22 days, to play his cello. He is completely isolated, vulnerable and a high priced target for the attacking snipers. 

The narration is told through the eyes of 3 characters as they each navigate the shelled-out city at risk of losing their lives. One is an elderly baker travelling across the city to work and make sure he has bread for his family. Another is a man making the daily routine of fetching fresh water from the brewery. The third character is a female sniper watching and protecting the Cellist from the surrounding buildings of rubble.

In a besieged city the objective is to drive to submission the defending people, to destroy all hope, to condemn people to absolute debilitating fear for their lives. The cellist sits in the middle of the square, sets up his instrument and plays. He creates something beautiful, and melodic, and mesmerising. Among the destruction, he demonstrates power over fear, a symbol of hope, and a light that reminds us of humanity and normality. There are those that need to remove this defiant symbol but our third character, the sniper Arrow, is drafted into making sure he remains alive, and kill any snipers on the other side.

It is a deeply moving story that shows even in the most inhuman situations someone is prepared to risk everything to remind us that life is about living.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” – Oscar Wilde.

While the story constructs fictional characters the background to the book and the cellist, Vedran Smailović, are based on actual events during the conflict of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Vedran left the city in 1993 and didn’t play in or visit Sarajevo again until 5th April 2012, when he returned for a performance.

I highly recommend this book. While it’s a wonderful novel with fictional characters, the fact that it is based on an actual event gives us a deeper context and illustrates how beauty can confront the ugliness of war.

The piece of music Vedran Smailović played was Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. See link below.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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