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.

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