Saturday, August 28, 2010

A really good book

The story goes like this:

During the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996), a bomb killed 22 people who were waiting in line for a loaf of bread.  After that, for 22 days at the exact site and the exact hour of the bombing, a cellist performed a piece called Albinoni’s Adagio in honor of the victims.  A sniper, referred to as Arrow, was hired to protect the cellist as he carries out this redemptive, but very dangerous act.

This is the premise for one of the best novels I have read in recent years, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.  The story is not really about the cellist, but rather about three characters who are struggling to survive in a very dangerous time and place.  I read this book about a year ago and was so drawn in that as soon as I finished it, I immediately read it again. 

The novel is based on some actual events.  There really was a bomb that killed 22 people who were waiting for bread. A cellist really did perform music for 22 days to honor the victims, but not at the same time or in the same place.  The real cellist, Vedran Smailović,  (who was infuriated by the novel, by the way) certainly recognized how dangerous and stupid that would be.  There actually is a piece called Albinoni’s Adagio. The piece has its own story.  A musician named Remo Giazotto supposedly found a manuscript consisting  only of four bars of a bass line in the rubble of the Saxon State Library after the Dresden firebombings,. He believed it was written by the Italian composer Albinoni  and spent 12 years reconstructing the piece, a piece of haunting beauty.   Apparently, it has little in common with other works by Albinoni and is now thought to be a fully original composition with no connection to the eponymous composer.

The book takes some liberties with factuality, but that makes it no less true.  That is what good fiction does;  through stories that never happened, fiction tells us the truth about who we are. 

The Cellist of Sarajevo is about surviving, resilience and ultimately redemption and hope. About the Adagio, Galloway writes, “’s this contradiction that appeals to the cellist.  That something could be almost erased from existence in the landscape of a ruined city, and then rebuilt until it is new and worthwhile, gives him hope.”  Maybe those four bars were not really “rebuilt” into a “new and worthwhile” Adagio after nearly being destroyed in WWII,  but communities of human beings do exactly that in rebuilding their cities and their lives in the aftermath of destruction.  This theme appears often in literature and I was reminded of it recently when I watched the movie Invictus.  In that movie, Nelson Mandela (played by the amazing and wonderful Morgan Freeman) emerges after being “nearly erased from existence“  by 27 years of imprisonment, to rebuild not only himself, but a nation.   

Back to the Cellist

Although the cellist does not know it, a sniper, called Arrow, is hired to protect him.  Arrow is a young woman, and very highly skilled.  She doesn’t miss.  We don’t know much about her, not even her real name.  The snipers use code names, ostensibly to protect their families,  “But Arrow believes they took these names so they could separate themselves from what they had to do, so the person who fought and killed could someday be put away.”  Eventually, it was the music that made her reunite who she was with what she did.  “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 a capacity for goodness.  The notes were proof of that.”   With that understanding she finally reveals her true identity.  Arrow’s story does not end happily but it does give us hope that like the Adagio itself, something new, worthwhile, and beautiful can emerge after the  darkness of war and hatred.  That is what I call salvation.

Today, and every day, I am grateful that we don’t “have to be filled with hatred” and that I know “to a certainty that the world… [holds] a capacity for goodness.”

Sorry.  I really didn’t intend to write an essay about this book. I just wanted to record some of my thoughts  so I don’t forget this remarkable book.  I highly recommend it!  J

P.S. The quotes are all from The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.  All of the background information is from various websites, including the academically reviled Wikipedia!  If this were an essay, I’d carefully cite them, but it is a BLOG!

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