The title of Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo refers to a real person, though the book is fiction. In 1992 Vedran Smailovic, a member of the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, played his cello in a bombed-out town square in Sarajevo for 22 days in honor of 22 people who were killed in a mortar attack during the Bosnian War. In choosing this method to call attention to the random horror of war, Smailovic put himself in daily peril from sniper fire, though he was never hurt. He eventually escaped from Sarajevo and lives now in exile in Ireland.
Galloway has taken this event and used it as the inspiration for his book, though the novel is more about the characters who react to and are inspired by the cellist rather than about the cellist himself, who remains unnamed in the novel. Instead Galloway focuses on a handful of characters who are managing to survive the siege of Sarajevo and the various strategies they have developed to cope, both physically and emotionally.
It's a moving story, though some characters' stories are more compelling than others. I especially connected with the female sniper known only as Arrow, whom Galloway portrays as bad-ass and vulnerable at the same time.
There are BIG books about war, and little books about war, and this is a little book. Is there a BIG book about the Bosnian war? Maybe it hasn't been written yet because I couldn't find one. An Amazon search for "bosnia or Yugoslavia war fiction" yielded only 17 results, while a search for "Iraq war fiction" yielded 410. Last year Angelina Jolie made a movie set during the conflict (In the Land of Blood and Honey), which got mixed reviews and which I haven't seen. Ratko Mladic is currently on trial in the Hague for the massacre of over 7,000 Bosnian men and boys in 1995. You would think novelists would be paying closer attention to all this.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.