The Cellist of Sarajevo Summary and Study Guide

Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo

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  • Features 4 chapter summaries and 6 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a teacher with over 25 years of experience and a PhD in English
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The Cellist of Sarajevo Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature.  This 34-page guide for “The Cellist of Sarajevo” by Steven Galloway includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 4 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Effects of War and The Redemptive Power of Art.

Plot Summary

The Cellist of Sarajevo focuses on the struggles of four people during the long and brutal Siege of Sarajevo. For the citizens of Sarajevo at this time, life is torturous. There are snipers in the hills encircling the city with their guns trained on the people below. These snipers, who the characters refer to as “the men in the hills,” are picking off the townspeople one by one whenever they venture outside for food or water. In fact, every trip someone makes outside becomes akin to a suicide mission—but one that the people have to make to stay alive. People have stopped talking to one another, which is reflected in the almost complete lack of dialogue in this book. There is no longer time for pleasantries or socializing. Every trip outside is a hurried rush for water or food.

The four main characters in this novel—Kenan, Dragan, Arrow, and the Cellist of Sarajevo—illustrate how different responses to the pressures war places upon the human heart. Some people fight back, like Arrow. Other characters, like Kenan and Dragan, retreat further inside themselves, into the safety of their own psychology. Some, like the Cellist of Sarajevo, try to salvage something beautiful from the wreckage of their world.

The novel opens with the perspective of the cellist, a young man who was once the chief cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony. He has recently witnessed a horrible mortar attack that killed 22 of his friends and neighbors who were standing in a bread line. He decides to honor the dead by sitting in the street, where the mortar hit, and playing one, achingly beautiful piece of music, Albinoni’s Adagio, every day for 22 days. His music comes to touch and inspire everyone who hears it, and the novel focuses on how three of the chief characters are affected by both his courage and the power of his song.

The first of the three main characters is Arrow, a 28 year-old woman who has been recruited by the Sarajevo Army because of the razor-sharp shooting talents she demonstrated while on the university shooting team. Her transformation from an innocent student—a person who could never even consider killing a man or an animal— into the army’s most admired sniper, shows the transformative powers of war upon the individual consciousness, one of Galloway’s most urgent themes in this novel.

Another character is Dragan, a 64 year-old baker who retreats from the horrors he sees about him through avoidance and isolation. Each day he must make one agonizing trip to the bakery where he works to receive his free loaf of bread. His struggle is one of overcoming his paralyzing fear of death and his need to isolate himself from others—a psychological journey out of fear and into courage and communion.

The other chief character is Kenan, whose wife and children live with him in a state of fear and isolation. Every four days, they run out of water and Kenan must cross town and go into a neighboring city to get more. Kenan travels this long distance to get water for his family so that he can guarantee it is potable, since Sarajevo’s sewage system has been turned off, along with the electricity. He wears a rope with two liter bottles tied all down his neck to pack enough water for his family and, kindly, for an older neighbor lady as well. Kenan is also burdened by a burning anger at the black market system he sees at work everywhere, allowing the rich and powerful to remain well fed and happy, while everyone else starves to death.

As a result of the cellist’s music, Arrow is able to walk away from a killing that would have saved her own life but, perhaps, taken her soul. Similarly, Kenan and Dragan are able to walk with courage through another day made less terrifying because the music has infused them with a new feeling of nobility.  They both start thinking about rebuilding the city and about a more positive future—in which they create something new out of all the wreckage, just like the piece of salvaged music that the cellist plays for them each day.

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Prologue