I’ve finished #3 on my TBR list (The Bridge of San Luis Rey), so I’m taking a brief detour through a book I’ve owned for a few years but haven’t read: Don McKay’s Vis a Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness. McKay is a Canadian environmental poet, to categorize. He writes:

“One word more on post-structural thought: in its problematization of terms like “nature” and “natural” (that is, in their reduction to disguised categories of language and culture) it provides a salutary check on romantic innocence, a positive reminder of the fact of the frame. But – and here I indulge in intuition based on tone and style – its skepticism nurtures its excess, secretly worships a nihilistic impulse as surely as Romanticism worshipped the creative imagination in the guise of nature. It is, no less than Romanticism, an ideology, a politics, and an erotics, despite protestations to the contrary. In the realm of ideas, as in human relations, we do well to suspect any basic drive that presents itself simply as method or a form of rationalism. That is, to be blunt, it is as dangerous to act as though we were not a part of nature as it is to act as though we were not a part of culture; and the intellectual and political distortions produced by these contrary ideologies are greatly to be feared.”       (30-31)


In a postmodern world we can have discussions about Keats’ maxim, but Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo shows in some small way ( or perhaps some big way) that it’s true.

It was chosen by the Ontario Library Association as the winner of the 2009 Forest of Reading Evergreen Award (celebrating Canadian writing),  and since the award will be given out at our 2010 superconference, it’s been taken on as a sort of theme book for the conference (it doesn’t hurt that one character thinks the library is “the most visible manifestation of a society he was proud of”). I had heard good things, so I picked it up.

According to the cover of my book, the Ottawa Citizen says that it’s “a galvanizing examination of the strength of the human heart”…and I suppose that’s accurate, but it could be more specific…it shows human strength because it shows us people working through their own weakness and fear: “It’s just something you do because life is a series of tiny, unavoidable decisions.”

The book is a fictionalized account of a cellist who played at the site of a mortar shelling in the Siege of Sarajevo for 22 days, one for each person who had been killed there. The sniper assigned to protect him (in the book) is also inspired by  a female Sarajevan sniper the author saw on a news report. The book follows the sniper and some other characters, all of whom have their own feelings and thoughts on the siege, their lives, and the work of the cellist.

And it comes back to a universal question of war: “Do the men on the hills hate her? Or do they hate the idea of her, because she’s different from them, and that in this difference there might be some sort of inferiority or superiority that is hers or theirs, that in the end threatens the potential happiness of everyone?”

The book shows how these big questions influence that series of tiny, unavoidable decisions, and it is beautiful because it is true and true because it is beautiful.