Should Your Book Club Read The Cellist of Sarajevo?

If, like billions of others, you regularly read this blog, you know that I love my local library.  Linda, one of the stellar librarians, recommended this book to me.  How on earth did I miss this book when it first came out in 2008?  That’s when I was starting Literary Masters so I was busy, yes, but this gem of a novel would have been a great literary treasure to ‘dig deep’ into.  In fact, my answer to whether your book club should read The Cellist of Sarajevo is a resounding YES!

So what can your book club discuss?

I am embarrassed to admit how little I know about the war in former Yugoslavia.  Ironically, I was living in London for many of those years, only a two hour flight from the war zone.  I remember a weekend trip we took to Italy to escape the English weather; we were soaking up the sunshine in an outdoor cafe and our waitress was a refugee from Yugoslavia.  She looked like any young English or Italian woman–educated, well-dressed, articulate, friendly–it was her accent that started our conversation with her about her origins.  At the time the war was just entering my consciousness so her plight didn’t register like it should have.  I wonder what happened to her and others like her.

If you’re looking for a book that will tell you all about the conflict–how it started and what went on–this is not that book.  In fact, if you know of such a book, PLEASE let me know the title!  Post it in the comments below; I am looking for a very accessible non-fiction book or novel that will shed light on what happened there and why.

What you will find in this book is, and I marvel at this, a poetic use of language describing war in a universal sense.  Don’t get me wrong; we know the story is taking place in Yugoslavia–it’s about the siege of Sarajevo.  But (for me) the take-aways from the story are not specific to that war; rather they speak to the humanity in all of us about all wars, all conflicts, everywhere.  I found this book to be one of the most moving novels I have read in a long time.  I look forward to re-reading it for many reasons, not least of which is so I can savor the beautiful language.

You’ll want to discuss the beautiful prose and ponder the rhetorical devices the author uses.

Evidently there truly was an incident like that which happens in this book.  There was a bombing in Sarajevo where multiple people were killed and a local cellist played music for twenty-two days at the site of the massacre to honor the dead.  The author tells us in his afterword that this real-life cellist inspired the novel but he is not the cellist in the book.

There are four main characters in the book: the cellist, the sniper, the family man who goes for the water, and the family man who has sent his family to Italy.  There is, of course, the secondary but still very important characters: the men in the hills who are holding Sarajevo hostage, the men who are running the country’s various factions, the middle-men who are making money off of the war, and the rest of the world which is refusing to rescue the citizens of Sarajevo.  And let’s not forget the city of Sarajevo as a character.

You’ll want to discuss all of the above characters–how does the situation affect them?    What is the motivation of each one?  What, if anything, do they learn?  What message do they send to the reader?  In fact, you’ll want to discuss:  What is this book about?  (Not in the literal sense, but you know that already, right?)  What is the responsibility of each character?  How did each character come to be in the situation in which he finds himself?

You’ll want to discuss war and conflict in general.  And how the world is a stage upon which we are all players.  What if we refuse to play our assigned role?  Who assigns us that role anyway?

You’ll want to discuss the role of choices and decisions in the novel.  What is the book saying about this, and do you agree?

You’ll want to discuss whether this could happen where you live.  My personal opinion is if you think not, you are delusional.  So perhaps you should talk about how we can avoid such conflicts.  Or, as the book asks, are we doomed to repeat them?

Connected to the above, you’ll want to ask yourselves how you would act in such a situation.  Is there a moral component to how one should act in war?  Or does war excuse our actions with each man out for himself?  Can one remain principled during wartime?  Can one ever know the answers to these questions without being in the situation?

Whether you read The Cellist of Sarajevo with your book club or on your own, definitely read it.  It’s worth it.

2 thoughts on “Should Your Book Club Read The Cellist of Sarajevo?

  1. I lived in Croatia in 1993 and 1994 and have probably read every book about the Yugoslav wars. This book, for me, dos the best job of capturing the reality of he Seige of Sarajevo. And, the character of Sarajevo itself. There were many Bosnian refugees in the city. Little details, like”fishing”for pigeons, may sound silly, but one woman friend's family, still there, did eactly that.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, and I apologize for the delay in my response to you. You mention that you've read every book about the Yugoslavian wars; can you recommend others beside this one?

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