Swans Commentary » swans.com November 16, 2009  



In The Cellist Of Sarajevo Is Fiction A License To Lie?


by Walter Trkla


Book Review



Galloway, Steven: The Cellist of Sarajevo, Knopf Canada, 2008; ISBN: 978-0-307-39703-4 (0-307-39703-3), Hardcover, 272 pages.


(Swans - November 16, 2000)   This review will look at Steven Galloway's novel The Cellist of Sarajevo, a fiction based on events in Sarajevo during the NATO breakup of Yugoslavia. I will examine whether or not a fiction writer who uses a historical backdrop has a moral responsibility not to play fast and loose with the facts even when he tells us that this is fiction. After reading The Cellist of Sarajevo, I wondered if I could ever read anything about Yugoslavia or the conflicts there without feeling angry and affected by my knowledge, heritage, history, and imbued cultural values. But again, I am similarly angered and affected when I read media generated events on Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, particularly when fiction writers use these events to send a message and in the process, misrepresent or sanitize history.

The truth about the siege of Sarajevo and the cellist in this book is fragile, devoid of authenticity, and the author of this fiction does not present a position from which he can speak on these issues with authority. Unfortunately, Galloway does not provide endnotes that will allow the reader to check the author's assertions, trace his claims to reliable sources which are available, and verify events he uses to build his story. The very least I would expect from any writer who makes assertions is that the reader can use verifiable evidence from all sides to make sure that their account conforms to scholarly sources that corroborate one another.

In The Cellist of Sarajevo, the uninformed reader is not able to separate fact from fiction. One might assume Galloway does not know, nor does he care, if the reader knows the facts, since for most people in the West, including Galloway, our news is derived from media manipulation of events. As Galloway himself states, one of the people he interviewed, "Nenad Velicaovic, a Bosnian writer, shouted at him one day telling him to 'Go home and write about Canada'. 'You know nothing about Sarajevo.' And he was right." Galloway does not join the history of Sarajevo, he runs from it and in the end fabricates it. Galloway's novel and its historical backdrop are manipulated writing that brings into question his main message on the impact of war on the individual.

A warning, though -- it's hard to read this book without the sneaking suspicion about its originality since I immediately see Galloway's cellist as Szpilman the pianist, in Polanski's movie. There is nothing new in this book, and this is clear from the moment you see its similarity to The Pianist. If you have seen the movie or read The Pianist, which in Polish was called Death of a City, there is no need for you to read The Cellist of Sarajevo since this piece is a replica of the other. In The Pianist, we get one more Nazi struggling with his innate moral code while in this novel we get one more cynical manipulation of the truth.

In the West, we have been conditioned to think that our moral code does not exist in a German soldier of WWII nor does he have a social cognition similar to our own, and yet, we are both surprised when he does or does not act according to our set of values. In some of us, our moral code has been altered by money, indoctrination, and propaganda as well as our own intellectual laziness to look beyond the place and time created by the dominant group, and I am not sure which I can attribute to Galloway. We only see evil in others and we don't see ourselves as others see us, and consequently, all we want is revenge like Galloway's main character, Arrow.

Galloway navigates the moral world of Sarajevo, either consciously or unconsciously as he understands it from Internet sources and some selective interviews that he has done. He gives his fictitious characters license to navigate the social world, turned upside down by outsiders, without concern for the truth. This book distorts history as it does the idea that there is culture without music, and that there are individuals without the emotion for music appreciation. Galloway shows the "men on the hill" with a human face as the enemy sniper's love of music leads to his death. The author does this in order to show that we have a common love of music that is separate from hate, fear, and morality with which I strongly disagree, because all these emotions are present in equal proportions in all cultures. It is possible that the sniper and the real cellist saw music as essential to human survival as well as his social survival, and for Galloway's characters like Kenan and Dragan who came to listen to the cellist, music may have been a hunger like their hunger for bread or water.

The Cellist, like The Pianist, is not for everyone since the reader might have had enough of media manipulation of the history of WWII and the breakup of Yugoslavia, which Galloway manipulates liberally. The common theme that runs through Galloway's piece is his desire to show us the world of Sarajevo through the eyes of others. The author claims that the intent of his work is to examine "what power the consumption of art has to influence people's lives, particularly when they are under stress." His other intent, he claims, was "to show what happens when one group of people hates another because they think that group hates them more."

This may be so as Galloway sees it, but this novel distorts history with fiction and avoids a full measure of blame of those responsible for violating the principles of international law, contravening articles of war, and setting aside treaties when they proved to be an obstacle to the policy aims of powerful nations. By avoiding this, Galloway conveniently identifies the "men on the hill" as the purveyors of evil, and like those most responsible for killing a nation, this serves their purpose.

The uninformed reader is unable to see the newest government lie or propaganda through the severed limbs of people queuing for bread. In a similar way, those who killed a nation used these images to make us forget, about a "nuclear-free world, international law, pre-emptive war, wars of aggression, national sovereignty, and all that other United Nations Charter and human-rights nonsense," as William Blum writes in the Anti-Empire Report. The message of Galloway's book is that these things are "nonsense." Good literature plays a powerful role in our society and should engage us, make us think, but not persuade us. This book does neither.

A fiction writer may not want to concern himself with international law and justice, but since Galloway does not, he blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, morality and immorality, and most importantly, between hate and fear. These are all universal human values and Galloway, in this novel, says it is OK to work in the shadows of history since the book is fiction. Is it really OK for Galloway to use his characters and repeat the mainstream media sanitization of that conflict and further blur the boundary between fact and fiction?

Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania Edward S. Herman writes in Global Research:

The successful demonization of the [men on the hill], making them largely responsible for the Yugoslav wars, and as unique and genocidal killers, was one of the great propaganda triumphs of our era. It was done so quickly, with such uniformity and uncritical zeal in the mainstream Western media, that disinformation had (and still has, after almost two decades) a field day.

Those in the mainstream media write for profit, and like Galloway, anything that sells and buys the next meal is OK, even if it perpetuates hate.

Galloway's thesis states that hate was the cause of the misery of the people of Sarajevo. It was fear of history repeating itself that led to the siege of Sarajevo, not hate, and Galloway should know this. He would also know, if he had asked the real cellist who loved the diversity of Sarajevo, that people like him never wanted or believed that events would unfold as they did. This book is just one more example in which an author who does not know the past or present history of the people or does not care about it takes liberty to distort it for artistic effect.

It is reasonable to assume that hate is the reason people come to the site of the massacre, and it is equally reasonable to assume it's the universality of music that makes Galloway's fictional characters identify with the cellist. Musicians like the cellist train to play for the world but sometimes will play for their own sanity. For the people of Sarajevo, the cellist's music spoke to them about their condition. Many came to listen in order to fill the void in their lives.

To put the book in context, the reader must understand that Galloway is a product of Western media manipulation, and like his characters, he will believe anything, including the Breadline Massacre hoax, which is central to his novel. Edward S. Herman quotes onetime head of the US intelligence section in Sarajevo, Lieutenant Colonel John Sray, who stated back in 1995 that "America has not been so pathetically deceived since Robert McNamara helped to micromanage and escalate the Vietnam War."

The central character in the novel is the cellist from the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra who plays his cello in honor of twenty-two people who were killed while queuing for bread in Vase Miskin Street. The reader is not privy to the cellist's thoughts, but we know from his statements after the conflict that the real cellist loved his city and all its people, and we also know that he played his cello to honor all those who died in the bread line as well as for all the people of Sarajevo.

There is very strong evidence, which Galloway ignores, that Vase Miskin Street had been blocked off prior to the explosion. Once the people were brought in from a local detention centre and lined up to purchase bread, the media appeared but kept their distance. The explosion took place, and the media were immediately allowed on the scene. The majority of the people killed are alleged to be from the same ethnic group as "the men on the hill."

Galloway does not seem to care who committed the atrocity, nor does he seem to care about the people who died there. He uses the death of twenty-two people without asking who benefited from this tragedy, just like he benefited by including the cellist in his fiction without asking his permission. By omission, the author misrepresents the cellist as he misrepresents the men on the hill and the men in the city, who before this conflict were soldiers in the same army, were neighbors and workers in the same city, and many who may have listened to the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra together.

According to Galloway, the cellist is marked for assassination because he represents freedom of the spirit, which the "men on the hill" as he calls them want to extinguish. Cedric Thornberry, a high UN official who investigated atrocities in Bosnia wrote in Foreign Policy in 1996 that the fix was in to demonize the "men on the hill" and Herman writes, "The same point was made by Canadian General Lewis Mackenzie, who insisted that 'it was not a black-and-white picture and that 'bad' guys had not killed 'good' guys. The situation was far more complex" (Globe & Mail, July 15, 2005). The same was said by former NATO Deputy Commander Charles Boyd, former UNPROFOR Commander Satish Nambiar, UN officials Philip Corwin and Carlos Martins Branco, and former US State Department official George Kenney. But anybody who parted from the party line was ignored or marginalized. Galloway ignores all this and feels that he is neutral since he does not identify the ethnicity of his characters.

The "men on the hill" are portrayed as Nazi-like and this of course is how the media in the West portrayed them. Galloway, true to Western form, does not deviate from the "norm." His other three characters are imaginary. Arrow, or strela in Serbo-Croat language, is a sniper with the army in the town who is assigned to protect the cellist from the sniper who is sent by "the men on the hill" to kill him, which, of course, is fictional. Arrow saves the cellist by killing the enemy sniper who lets his guard down as he listens to the cellist play.

Arrow refuses to participate in further killing, as she is told that she must kill civilians. For her refusal, she becomes a target from her own military elements. Since all sides targeted civilians, Galloway uses Arrow's refusal to show the immorality of human nature. By refusing to kill civilians, Arrow, like the pianist Szpilman, loses her community, family, friends, and those that she might have loved, but unlike Szpilman, who finds a new hiding place, Arrow has lost interest in the city, in its people, and in her own life and refuses to hide. She is resigned to her own death, which occurs at the hands of the people with whom she worked.

Through Kenan, a family man with a wife and two children, we learn about the daily struggle to get water, while through a third character, Dragan, a bakery worker, we see the danger from snipers as "Sarajevans" dodge bullets crossing intersections. Again, these characters, like those in the movie The Pianist, face grief and deprivation as they try to live a normal life. Each day is a trial for Dragan. Like Polanski's pianist, we see Dragan crying helplessly in front of his friend's wife while waiting to cross an intersection. Dragan is disgusted at himself for being a coward for not going to her aid when she is shot while attempting to cross the street.

Does an author of fiction owe a duty to the reader to present history accurately, or does the fact that he claims this is fiction absolve him from that moral responsibility? The Cellist of Sarajevo reads like the diary of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII, but more disgustingly, it reads like the mainstream media reports that Galloway used about the events that killed a nation. Galloway uses events in history that are still untested by evidence and then goes on a fishing trip in order to give his characters a moral position when he does not know who is moral and who is immoral. Galloway can cook his fiction the way he wants, but this is his ethical stand, and I am allowed my moral outrage because of the evidence that I have, and for the fact that he provides us with no evidence to believe his historical backdrop.


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Internal Resources

Also by Walter Trkla: A Helmet For Dung Collectors: Yugoslav Memories - April 2006, and American Economy Predicaments - October 2008.

Book Reviews

The Balkans and Yugoslavia

Patterns which Connect


About the Author

Walter Trkla is a retired high school teacher of world history, law, and economics. He holds a master's degree in teaching. He also taught geography at Thompson Rivers University, and supervised student teachers for the University of British Columbia. Mr. Trkla was adopted by his uncle after his father was killed in WWII. He lives in Kamloops, BC, Canada, with his wife Judy. They have two daughters.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published November 2, 2009