Where This Meets That
“In 1945, an Italian musicologist found four bars of a sonata’s bass line in the remnants of the firebombed Dresden Music Library. He believed these notes were the work of the seventeenth-century Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni, and spent the next twelve years reconstructing a larger piece from the charred manuscript fragment. The resulting composition, known as Albinoni’s Adagio, bears little resemblance to most of Albinoni’s work and is considered fraudulent by most scholars. But even those who doubt its authenticity have difficulty denying the Adagio’s beauty.
“Nearly half a century later, it’s this contradiction that appeals to the cellist. That something could be almost erased from existence in the landscape of a ruined city, and then rebuilt until it is new and worthwhile, gives him hope.” – Excerpt from The Cellist of Sarajevo
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In the midst of hopelessly war-torn Sarajevo, a cellist overlooks a dwindling marketplace from his second-floor apartment window each day and plays his cello, “until he feels his hope return.”
One afternoon, his mood has lifted and he has just ceased playing, when a shell strikes the street below, where he had moments before seen friends and neighbors waiting in line to buy bread. Twenty two people are killed before his eyes.
The carnage resonates deeply within him and connects with his affection for Albinoni’s Adagio. He feels compelled to don his tuxedo from his days with the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra before the war and try, for each of the next 22 days, at the same hour of the bombing, to sit in the crater left by the explosion and play the Adagio.
Albinoni’s Adagio represents the theme of Galloway’s novel, as he introduces us to normal, everyday citizens caught in the middle of civil war. The cellist’s performances are the thread that ties these individuals’ stories together. Each wishes the war had never begun and longs for it to end. Each knows the city has changed but is unable to count the ways, leading them to question whether the Sarajevo of their memories ever really existed at all. As they reflect upon the changed city, they must also reflect upon themselves. What makes us who we are? If our environment changes, then must we also? And once we’ve changed, can we ever “go back”? Are we ever in control?
In The Cellist of Sarajevo, Galloway gives us a “street level view” of a people under siege and a call to see beauty wherever we are. I see some of myself in these characters who feel caught in the middle of someone else’s conflict. Despite the extremist views that saturate our culture, I tend to think of most people as rational moderates, reluctant to endorse agitators to either side. There is a beauty to the human experience not fraught with human borne destruction. There is beauty in the mundane details that we too frequently bury under daily conflicts. More simply, there is beauty in being human. Can anyone really take that away, if we are not willing to give it up?
These are worthy reflections, and Galloway does a nice job of framing them here in this tender, straight-forward book.