Monday, September 30, 2013

The Atrocities of Modern Warfare

In my quest for the perfect book to jumpstart my co-ed book club, I chose our local library's selection for The One Book, One Community "The Cellist of Sarajevo" by Steven Galloway.  Highly acclaimed by everyone from O Magazine to Yann Martel (author of "Life of Pi") as a moving novel about retaining humanity in the face of the inhumanities of war.

At first, I found it hard to connect to the monotone writing style of Steven Galloway, but I soon fell into the rhythmic wave of the mere quest for survival that each of the four main characters faces on a daily basis.  The monotone writing style showed how war strips every person of their personalities, how it rids cities of culture, art and libraries, how it makes people cower with fear.  I appreciated Galloway's strokes of genius throughout the novel as the four intersecting character's lives overlapped in a city destroyed by fear, shells, and snipers.  The loss of electricity, water, food, and safety of all those who decided to stay in their beloved Sarajevo either because they couldn't leave or didn't want to showed the devastation of war time.  How a once functional city could deteriorate.  How Dragan, who was a baker before the war started,  could risk his life to move the body of a stranger out of the street because the Sarajevo he loves would not allow for a man's dead body to be left in the middle of the street to be filmed by an opportunistic journalist.  But "every day the Sarajevo [Dragan] thinks he remembers slips away from him a little at a time, like water cupped in the palms of his hands, and when it's gone he wonders what will be left."

The new reality of Sarajevo during the siege (from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996, the longest city siege in modern warfare) is one where people who are starving are killed while waiting in line to buy bread, where people who are filling water containers to take home are attacked by mortar shells lose limbs and some are unlucky enough to lose their lives, where people need to fear for their lives while crossing the street because snipers wait for perfect shots in the hills that overlook the city playing target practice with innocent civilians, where some snipers have a heart and try to protect the innocent, where one man decides to pay homage to the 22 civilians who lost their lives while buying bread by playing his cello for 22 days in the town center defying the war torn land that is now their home.

"The Cellist of Sarajevo" focuses on the powerful struggle of humans to retain dignity in the face of war's atrocities, and how music can soothe the souls of a tormented city and offer hope for the future in the face of a bleak present.

I actually went back and reread the novel again (it's short enough to do that), and I immersed myself in the bleak world or war torn Sarajevo - the world of Arrow, Dragan, Kenan, the cellist, and the other faceless citizens that lived like rats scrounging to survive.  My biggest take away -  I am spoiled and lucky.  I have never faced hunger or deep loss, nor have I been in a constant state of fear for my life - that almost overrides my need for basic necessities.  I've always been able to provide for my daughters, and my life is rife with choices and an excess of fun.  The reality that Galloway paints in "The Cellist of Sarajevo" is a sobering view of modern war fare and the hopeful reminder of the power of the human spirit.

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