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October 19, 2011

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The intrusion of musical grace and Steven Galloway’s “The Cellist of Sarajevo”

by Mark Meynell
Evstafiev-bosnia-cello

I don’t cry in movies. Sometimes I’d quite like to. But that’s a different story. I just don’t. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom.

This is arguably the turning point, both for the film and for Wiesler himself. The music is the catalyst for at last drawing out the long-latent humanity in this hitherto faithful agent of the state. I won’t plot-spoil – but the music is the key to the love and redemption that then takes place. It is the great glistening ray of light that pierces through the oppressive gloom of the world’s most effective espionage state.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of that at various points in the sparkling novel by Canadian Steven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo. I’ve blogged about my visits to Sarajevo in the past several times and it is a city that draws and breaks hearts.

The novel is a purely fictionalised account inspired by a true story: Vedran Smailović (left) was a cellist who had played in various orchestras before the Balkans war and during the siege would play at events and funerals. After the atrocity of the killings of 22 people queueing for bread in May 1992 (see previous post), the cellist played in memory of each who had died on 22 consecutive days. It is an extraordinary act of defiance and beauty amidst horror and danger – Smailović knew perfectly well that he was at risk from sniper fire.

Sadly, the book has generated quite a bit of controversy – not least because Smailović has been publicly furious (£) about the depiction, and also because if the gall of a westerner claiming to write from the viewpoint of those besieged. This is very sad – while understandable. But it doesn’t detract from what is an extraordinary book. It is fiction – but like all the best fiction, utterly plausible and true. For the character of the cellist is more the backdrop to the book. It is actually about 3 individual Sarajevans struggling for survival during the siege and the effect the cellist’s actions have on them: Arrow is the nom de guerre for a female sniper, Kenan is a youngish father and Dragan an older bakery worker.

The ever-present possibility of death

The world these three inhabit is bleak. They are constantly aware that each day could be their last – and life seems irrational, illogical, unpredictable. Every street crossed could bring the end. And yet life must go on. There is little rhyme or reason about who survives. To that extent it evoked Primo Levi‘s description of those in Nazi concentration camps as being the drowned or the saved. Here is Kenan:

He continues downhill. If he looks up he can see the mountains to the south. He wonders if the men on the hills can see him. He imagines it’s possible. Any decent pair of binoculars would reveal him, a thin, youngish man in a shabby brown coat, carrying two bouquets of plastic bottles. They could kill him now, he supposes. But then again, they could have killed him any one of a number of times already, and if they don’t kill him now they’ll have more opportunities in the future. He doesn’t know why some people die and others don’t. He doesn’t have any idea how the men on the hills make their choices, and he doesn’t’ think he wants to know. What would he think about? Would he be flattered they didn’t choose him or offended he wasn’t a worthy target in their eyes? (p48)

Memorial to those killed at the Sarajevo meat market in 1995

Or take Arrow’s reflections on the place where the atrocity occurred:

Arrow crosses and sits in the spot where the mortar landed, the spot where, later today, the cellist will sit. She knows that twenty-two people died here and a multitude were injured, will not walk or see or touch again. Because they tried to buy bread. A small decision. Nothing to think about. You’re hungry, and come to this place where maybe there will be some bread to buy. Of all the places to go, you come here. Of all the days to come, a particular one chooses you. At four o’clock in the afternoon. It’s just something you do because life is a series of tiny, unavoidable decisions. And then some men on the hills send a bomb through the air to kill you. For them, it was probably just one more bomb in a day of many. Not notable at all…

That is how she now believes life happens. One small thing at a time. A series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster. There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way. (p101)

But such is the irrationality of evil. It is no wonder that the citizens find hatred hard to resist – a terrible irony given Sarajevo’s long history of ethnic groups living side-by-side as neighbours, friends and co-workers. So for example, one of  the things that Arrow resents most is that she finds herself hating ‘the men in the hills’ for the first time because of the atrocities she witnesses in her city.

The revolutionary grace of gratuitous beauty

The Cellist of Kinshasa!? (famous recent photo by Andrew McConnell) click for original

What is so wonderful about the cellist’s act is that it is so counteractingly irrational, if I can put it like that. It has the wonderfully affirming and creative illogicality of all beauty. It is an insane, dangerous and at one level, purposeless thing to do. What ‘good’ can playing the same piece of music every day for 22 days have? In a closed, materialistic universe, it makes no sense. But in a world where acts of goodness, grace and beauty don’t just evoke a yearning for something different and better but actually introduce these things, it makes all the sense and difference in the world.

I loved the descriptions of the effect on the passers-by of the sudden intrusion of beauty into the horror of life under siege. Here is Kenan again:

When Kenan was told of what the cellist was doing, he didn’t say anything, but thought it was a bit silly, a bit maudlin. What could the man possibly hope to accomplish by playing music in the street? It wouldn’t bring anyone back from the dead, wouldn’t feed anyone, wouldn’t replace one brick. It was a foolish gesture, he thought, a pointless exercise in futility.

None of this matters to Kenan anymore. He stares at the cellist, and feels himself relax as the music seeps into him. He watches as the cellist’s hair smooths itself out, his beard disappears. A dirty tuxedo becomes clean, shoes polished bright as mirrors. Kenan hasn’t heard the cellist’s tune before, but he knows it anyway, its notes familiar and full of pride, a young boy in a new coat holding his father’s hand as he walks down a winter street.

The building behind the cellist repairs itself. The scars of bullets and shrapnel are covered by plaster and pain, and windows reassemble, clarify and sparkle as the sun reflects of glass. The cobblestones of the road set themselves straight. Around him people stand up taller, their faces put on weight and colour. Clothes gain lost thread, brighten, smooth out their wrinkles.

Kenan watches as his city heals itself around him. The cellist continues to play, and Kenan knows what he will do now. He will walk up the street to his apartment. He’ll take the stairs two at a time, not even breathing fast, and throw open his door. Amila will be surprised to see him, and he’ll grab her and kiss her, like he used to when they were much younger. He’ll run his fingers through her hair, thick and the colour of honey. (p223-224)

Again without plot-spoiling, the beauty of the music is what transforms each person he hears it. So for example, Arrow is released from the grip of her hatred – with extraordinary consequences. Here she listens to the 22nd and final performance:

But she knew these notes. They had become a part of her. They told her that everything had happened exactly as she knew it had, and that nothing could be done about it. No grief or rage or noble act could undo it. But it could all have been stopped. It was possible. The men on the hills didn’t have to be murderers. The men in the city didn’t have to lower themselves to fight their attackers. She didn’t have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.

Arrow closed her eyes, and when she opened them the music was over. In the street, the cellist sat on his stool for a very long time. He was crying. His head leaned forward and a few strands of inky hair fell across his brow. (p271)

This is the wonder of all things that are good: love, beauty, hope, grace – they always contagiously and powerfully transform their environment. Wiesler experiences it in The Lives of Others. The prisoners experience it in The Shawshank Redemption (listen to how Morgan Freeman’s character describes their feelings in the clip below). And all three main characters experience it this inspiring book.

But the aspect that thrills me most, is that each of these is but a pale reflection of that greatest intrusion of beauty of them all: the intrusion of the divine in Christ.

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