In 1992, civil war breaks out in Sarajevo. The violence of war often brings out the worst in us, breeding evil, greed, selfishness and corruption. Before long, the people become inured to the death and destruction around them and soon begin to view it almost as normal life. If they don’t accept it, if they are stalwart and reject the values of their enemies, they will not succumb to their demands. Violence and death in the streets occur indiscriminately, but the murderers can search within themselves, they do not have to murder arbitrarily.
There are only a few important characters in this book. One is an accomplished professional musician, a cellist who decides to go outside, in spite of the danger, to play his cello for 22 days, one day for each of the innocent victims who died during a mortar attack as they waited to buy bread at the bakery. This story is very loosely based on Verdran Smailovic, a very real cellist who played his instrument during the war.
Then there is Arrow, not her real name, a professional sniper in the army, whose job it is to protect the cellist because the cellist is giving the people of Sarajevo hope for the future and has become a target. When her commanding officer loses his moral compass, she is forced to make a difficult choice.
Kenan is a husband and father who goes out every three or four days to collect water for his family and also for an elderly, cantankerous neighbor, a survivor from the concentration camps of WWII. The walk to the brewery, the only place to get fresh water, is fraught with danger, and he often freezes in fear and contemplates his reasons for going. His task is made harder because his neighbor won't use jugs with handles, forcing him to double back several times to get the water home. He questions his reasons for helping such an ungrateful person.
Dragan, a man in his mid sixties, works in a bakery, the same bakery whose customers were killed while waiting on line for bread. He came late to fatherhood, and out of concern for his wife and son’s safety, he sent them to Italy while he remained behind to watch their home. When he witnesses a sniper attack on a woman who is a friend of his wife, and he sees others shot down before him, alive one minute, dead the next, he experiences a cataclysmic change of his rationale about life.
The citizens of Sarajevo must face fear every day. Some go about their business ignoring it, some become brave and help others, some freeze and can do nothing but stare at victims and witness the devastation in horror. They have become used to the idea that the war will never end and they begin to lose their own humanity, but the cellist returns them to their senses. His bravery and dedication inspire them to believe in tomorrow; he gives them hope.
The danger and caprice of war, when it comes to victims is movingly portrayed. They are prey and are helpless to defend themselves. After awhile, both sides that are fighting lose sight of their purpose and the hero and villain become interchangeable, both behaving heinously, indiscriminately committing murder.
The audio was read very well, and I finished it in half a day, unable to stop because it was such a compelling story that had many philosophical lessons to teach. We don’t have to succumb to our basest instincts. War can destroy all feelings of mercy and decency, but we can recover and restore our humanity in the face of the most heinous evil, if we dare to hope for the future and are strong enough to face it.