Monday, September 27, 2010

Steven Galloway's Cellist

Another quickie: Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo. I'll admit that while this has been on my horizon for a couple of years, I was deterred somewhat by the positive response to a book about war. I'm wary of books that purport to alert us to the horrors of war while simultaneously offering a satisfying narrative arc, a redemptive ending, an aesthetic compensation. Books about war, I'd say, should make us uncomfortable, and doing so is unlikely to land them on any bestseller lists.

But Cellist surpassed my expectations. While there's no doubt that it engaged and satisfied many readers, there should be little doubt it must have troubled them as well. The eponymous cellist is not able to redeem the horrors of war, although he does indeed go some way to aestheticizing the human response to these, to pointing out our potential for nobility.

What lingered with me from this novel, and seemed one of its better contributions to our awareness of war, is how the landscape can change from normality to inescapable daily terror. Geographies that had only registered with me for their association with news reports from military zones are rendered through memories of a rich, culturally-diverse and beautiful city. Such renditions disrupt my irrational rationalization (I know -- sorry) of this space as discontinuous with my urban life. If someone can one month be drinking coffee with friends in a public plaza, discussing literature and listening to music, and then several months later making terror-laden hours-long expeditions to get a week's supply of water, surely that is a shared human problem rather than one I can merely switch off news about.

And how would I behave in the myriad of ethics-defying situations the novel's characters confront. Would I scurry to safety in a barrage of fire or risk my life to drag a wounded fellow pedestrian to cover? No, this is not simply a book that uses wartime drama to heighten a narrative arc. It is troubling, and it demands the reader put it down from time to time to contemplate the questions it asks. Worth picking up.

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