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‘Cellist of Sarajevo’ provides riches for citywide discussion

Steven Galloway, who wrote the novel “The Cellist of Sarajevo”

Every day at 4 p.m., an anonymous musician dressed in increasingly rumpled and dusty formalwear sets up on a stool in the war-stained streets of Sarajevo and plays his cello.  

He has committed to playing for 22 days in memory of the 22 people who were killed by mortar attack while waiting in line for bread. The cellist saw it all unfold from the window of his second-floor apartment. One minute he was wondering whether he should get in line — it had been a week since bread had been available — the next he’s registering an abandoned blood-soaked handbag shining with broken glass.

He does not move from the window for 24 hours. When he finally does, it is to begin his memorial.

Steven Galloway’s “The Cellist of Sarajevo” chronicles a short span in the lives of four residents of Bosnia’s capital during the civil war of the early 1990s.

A ring of snipers are positioned in the hills of the city. The city’s remaining residents must fill water bottles, cross targeted streets, play Albinoni’s Adagio for 22 straight days and keep an anonymous cellist alive.

The book is this year’s pick for One Book, One Community. Galloway will give a reading and sign books at 7 p.m. today at the Spirit of the North Theater at Fitger’s, one of many upcoming themed events tied into the all-city read of the novel.

Galloway’s novel, published in 2008, is based on the true story of Vedran Smailovic, a cellist who famously played among the city’s ruins during the war.

(According to newspaper accounts, Smailovic was pretty ticked about his likeness appearing in the international bestseller. But Galloway wasn’t the only artist to use Smailovic as his muse: Composer David Wilde, for one, wrote “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” a solo for cello that was recorded by Yo Yo Ma.)

Galloway’s most complete character is Arrow, a young and accidentally skilled sharp shooter. She has been given the nearly impossible assignment of keeping the cellist alive.

This requires figuring out what the shooter is thinking and what the shooter thinks she is thinking.

Alternately, the cellist gets minimal treatment. He’s a mysterious character whose music offers a reprieve to the citizens who risk death to attend his short concerts and lay flowers at the site of the bombing.

More often, the cellist’s effect is seen.

In one scene, Arrow is able to travel to a different time and place when the musician puts the bow to the throat of his instrument:

“She is no longer there. Her mother is lifting her up, spinning her around and laughing. The warm tongue of a dog licks her arms. There’s a rush of air as a snowball flies past her face. She slips on someone else’s blood and lands on her side, a severed arm almost touching her nose. In a movie theater, a boy she likes kisses her and puts her hand on her stomach. She exhales and pulls the trigger.”

Kenan must travel across town to a brewery to fill water jugs for his family — as well as the clunky and inconvenient jugs of an elderly neighbor.

Dragan is an older gent missing the Sarajevo he once knew. He’s a baker who is continuing to work in exchange for loaves. But getting to work requires crossing certain wide-open streets where snipers randomly pick off pedestrians.

“To go outside is to accept the possibility you will be killed. On the other hand, Dragan knows, the same could be said of staying inside.”

Galloway has created a thoughtful cast of characters who consider the war from a range of perspectives. What does it mean to kill? What will become of this space and how can it be rebuilt?

What does it mean to be neighbors in a shared hardship?

If you go

What: Reading and book signing by Steven Galloway, author of “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” this year’s One Book, One Community selection

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Spirit of the North Theater, Fitger’s Complex, 600 E. Superior St.

Tickets: Free, open to the public

Online: Listen to music with ties to “The Cellist of Sarajevo” at