Contributed by Paul Mathews, Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University
During a dangerous moment of reflection on an otherwise harried day, a man named Kenan pauses to consider a musician playing the cello to the accompaniment of distant gunfire. The cellist, who remains nameless throughout Steven Galloway’s novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, becomes the subject of much speculation and concern in the war-torn city after beginning a series of performances in the rubble of a destroyed market.
The story of Kenan is one of three parallel narratives found in Galloway’s work, which explores how several Sarajevans make sense of the musician’s performances. Some cling to the recitals as a semblance of humanity in a world that is collapsing around them. Others hope the daring act will capture the attention of an outside world that seems to have forsaken them. Still others will stop at nothing to prevent a pathetic spectacle from shaming the international community into a decisive intervention.
Kenan, a veritable everyman, has far more practical concerns. Amidst shelling and sniper fire, his sole task is to travel across the ravaged city to fetch water for his family and an ungrateful neighbor. The trip is eventful and harrowing. In a particularly transitional moment during his errand, Kenan hears the mournful strains of an adagio and asks himself, “What could the man possibly hope to accomplish by playing music in the street?”
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I remember asking myself a similar question when the Occupy Wall Street protestors took to the streets in September 2011. Such questions are not so much a matter of inquiry as an expression of exasperation: we think we are witnessing a futile, even petulant act of protest.
In the United States, we associate protest with the large demonstrations of the 1960s, when tens of thousands of people assembled to campaign for civil rights or to protest the war in Vietnam. The oppressive police states of the Eastern Bloc did not permit such assemblies. Behind the Iron Curtain, an act of protest was literally an act of suicide: most notably, public self-immolation.
As a city in the former Yugoslavia, Sarajevo was not part of the Eastern Bloc. The transaction of personal sacrifice for public reform would seem alien to Kenan, who probably only knew of such horrific acts as something they did in Prague or Warsaw during the bad times.
Yet, when similarly bad times descend on the former Yugoslavia, the armed forces fighting for the city quickly understand the potential significance of the cellist’s actions. Sarajevans risk their lives, snaking through city streets that have become shooting galleries to hear the cellist play. Regardless of his intentions, the cellist’s performances draw attention to the savagery of the conflict.
The musician at the center of such high stakes is a comparatively minor character. Prior to the market massacre, the cellist – fictional parallel of Vedran Smailovi?, the real Cellist of Sarajevo – was simply struggling to remain a cellist. In the aftermath, without an orchestra, opera house, or other performance prospects, the virtuoso still practices every day for reasons he probably cannot even articulate. Playing the cello becomes the only thing that gives him hope. On days when even his normal practice routine fails to restore hope, the cellist plays one particular piece, an adagio, set aside as a last resort.
The cellist’s relationship with the adagio is a familiar type of behavior, usually exhibited by people who manage unhealthy habits and obsessions. The discomfort caused by such routines becomes clear when we map the behavior to less savory pursuits: the incipient stalker who tries to last several days before driving past the house of a former lover; the fad dieter who rewards a day of unhealthy fasting by binging on ice cream; the despairing soul that holds to only two drinks except on the days that seem too long to wait for two more drinks.
In making such analogies, I do not mean to suggest that playing music is any way unhealthy. Given the state of Sarajevo during the siege, I doubt the cellist could have done anything more worthwhile. And given the satisfaction of musical accomplishment, I can think of few things better for anyone on any day. However, managing stress and satisfaction, whether in the form of addiction or musical accomplishment, is often a private matter.
By playing music in that terrible time, Galloway’s cellist is managing the intimate struggles of his daily life. By taking those struggles to the market, the cellist is simply doing the thing that artists do best: placing personal struggles on public display.
When Kenan first asks what the cellist hopes to accomplish, he certainly doesn’t have the presence of mind to think through such things. The soldiers and politicians who imagine the cellist is staging a dramatic protest are only half-right: it is indeed a demonstration, but one more personal than political.
Nothing holds more truth for more people than the agonized epiphany of a single person. In Galloway’s novel, exposure to the cellist’s performances fundamentally changes each of the major characters. In real life, the performances of Vedran Smailovi? captured the attention of the world, and NATO was eventually compelled to intervene in the conflict.
Within the broad metrics introduced by Kenan’s question, the twenty-two impromptu performances in the destroyed market are quite an accomplishment. However, in the more meaningful exchange between performer and audience, the cellist embraces the grief and horror of a crumbling Sarajevo and dares its captive citizens to join him in an adagio of the last resort: the courage of implausible hope.
Paul Mathews is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University. A composer of opera and chamber music, Mathews was born in Baltimore and attended Maryland Public Schools. www.about.me/paulmathews
Visit the Baltimore Book Festival on Sunday, September 30 at noon to hear a Peabody Conservatory student play Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor before Cellist of Sarajevo author Steven Galloway speaks, answer questions, and sign copies of this year’s One Maryland One Book. Steven Galloway then travels throughout Maryland. Click here to view a complete author tour schedule.