In The Cellist of Sarajevo, Galloway portrays art and culture as the core of civilization. He treats them not as luxuries, but as necessities that offer access to a universal humanity that both makes life worth living and combats the hatred exacerbated by war. Galloway is explicit his assessment that the loss of culture profoundly damaged the citizens of Sarajevo during the war. For instance, he describes the burning of the city’s main library and how that damage was worse for the Sarajevans than the loss of so many other buildings, since destroying the library metaphorically destroyed culture and learning in the city.
The most powerful symbol of art and culture in the novel is the cellist after whom the novel is named. In deciding to play his instrument in a public square for twenty-two days to honor Sarajevan citizens killed in a mortar attack, the cellist asserts the necessity and power of art at the risk of his own life. The cellist galvanizes the citizens to travel from across the city—braving possible sniper attacks at every street corner—to listen to his music. This suggests that the music is just as necessary to their survival as the food and water they traverse the treacherous city to obtain. The citizens seem to see the music as a statement of who they are, and as a symbol of the civilization and culture they had before the war.
In addition to its emotional and interpersonal value, culture is shown to be strategically important to the war effort. Nermin, Arrow’s first commander, suggests that the cellist bolsters the Sarajevan cause, since the music reminds Sarajevans why the city is worth defending. If the Sarajevo militia forgets the humanity and soul of the city, he argues, they will be less motivated to defend it—as such, the cellist’s music gives purpose and strength to the city’s defense. Because of this, the cellist is a threat to the Bosnian Serb forces trying to seize the city, since they know that the city will be easier to take if its people are demoralized, and the cellist is giving Sarajevans a renewed sense of hope and community. Therefore, Arrow gets assigned to protect the cellist from Bosnian snipers, and she ends up in a game of cat and mouse with a Bosnian sniper sent to kill the cellist. This circumstance allows Galloway to highlight another important aspect of art and culture: not only does it bolster the war effort, but it points to moral possibilities beyond the war As Arrow listens to the cellist from the place where she’s staking out the other sniper, she is reminded of her emotions. She thinks of her own humanity, as well as the humanity of the enemy Bosnian Serbs who have families and loved ones, just like she does. Furthermore, Arrow notices that the opposing sniper has become so enraptured by the cellist’s music that he has put up his gun—he’s so moved by art that he has, for now, set aside his mission to kill.
In its ability to bridge the gap between Arrow and the opposing sniper, to connect them both through the beauty of music, the novel portrays art and music as offering a route out of the hatred of the war. However, Arrow rejects this bridge and kills the other sniper, which marks Arrow’s descent into a moral abyss. This is apparent in Nermin’s decision to relieve her of her duties, since he knows now that her willingness to take advantage of the sniper’s vulnerable moment would lead her to other immoral acts. Further, just after she kills the opposing sniper, Arrow looks down from her location at the cellist, hoping the cellist will look up and acknowledge how she has protected him. The cellist does not look up, showing that whether the cellist is aware or not of what Arrow has done is unimportant. The lack of acknowledgement from the cellist indicates that art and culture can't be defended through violence. Rather, by showing people from every walk of life in Sarajevo (even a Bosnian Serb soldier) enjoying the cellist’s music, Galloway suggests that music and culture are uniting forces; they’re the best antidote to the hatred of war.
Art, Culture, and Civilization ThemeTracker
Art, Culture, and Civilization Quotes in The Cellist of Sarajevo
The resulting composition, known as Albinoni's Adagio bears little resemblance to most of Albinoni's work and is considered fraudulent by most scholars. But even those who doubt its authenticity have difficulty denying the Adagio's beauty.
Nearly half a century later, it's this contradiction that appeals to the cellist. That something could be almost erased from existence in the landscape of a ruined city, and then rebuilt until it is new and worthwhile, gives him hope.
He's stopped talking to his friends, visits no one, avoids those who come to visit him. At work he says as little as possible. He can perhaps learn to bear the destruction of buildings, but the destruction of the living is too much for him. If people are going to be taken away from him, either through death or a transformation of their personality that makes them into strangers, then he's better off without them.
"I can't remember if we were like that, or just think we were. It seems impossible to remember what things were like." And he suspects this is what the men on the hills want most. They would, of course, like to kill them all, but if they can't, they would like to make them forget how they used to be, how civilized people act. He wonders how long it will take before they succeed.
The cellist confuses her. She doesn't know what he hopes to achieve with his playing. He can't believe he will stop the war. He can't believe he will save lives… She can't tell what he believes, and it bothers her that she can't say exactly what it is, or whether she wants to believe it too. She knows it involves motion. Whatever the cellist is doing, he isn't sitting in a street waiting for something to happen. He is, it seems to her, increasing the speed of things. Whatever happens will come sooner because of him.
The men on the hills made the library one of their first targets, and they took to their task with great efficiency. Kenan didn't know if it was shells that started the fire, or if someone smuggled in a bomb as they did in the post office, but he knew that as it burned they fired incendiary shells at it. He went there when he heard it was burning, without knowing why. He watched, helpless and useless, as this symbol of what the city was and what many still wanted it to be, gave in to the desires of the men on the hills.
"Who is he playing for?" she asks again, and suddenly Dragan thinks he knows.
"Maybe he's playing for himself," he says. "Maybe it's all he knows how to do, and he's not doing it to make something happen." And he thinks this is true. What the cellist wants isn't a change, or to set things right again, but to stop things from getting worse. Because, as the optimist in Emina's mother's joke said, it can always get worse. But perhaps the only thing that will stop it from getting worse is people doing the things they know how to do.
She is the person he once knew: Affected by the war, changed, but the woman he knew is still in there. She hasn't been covered in the gray that colors the streets. He wonders why he hasn't seen this before, wonders how much else he hasn't seen.
She wonders whether he can hear the music. He's not much farther from the cellist than she is, so he must. Does it sound the same to him? What does he hear? What does he think about this man who sits in the street and plays?
Arrow lowers her rifle and looks down at the street. The cellist has finished. He picks up his stool and cello and heads for his door. He pauses just before he enters, and she wonders if he will look in her direction. Even though he can't possibly see her, she wants him to turn toward her, to acknowledge her in some way. The cellist adjusts his grip on his instrument and disappears into the building.
"The men on the hills have created many monsters," he says, "and not all of them are on the hills. There are those here who believe they are in the right simply because they oppose something that is evil. They use this war and the city for their own ends, and I won't be a part of it. If this is how the city will be once the war is over, then it's not worth saving."
The building behind the cellist repairs itself. The scars of bullets and shrapnel are covered by plaster and paint, and windows reassemble, clarify, and sparkle as the sun reflects off glass. The cobblestones of the road set themselves straight. Around him people stand up taller, their faces put on weight and color. Clothes gain lost thread, brighten, smooth out their wrinkles.
Kenan watches as his city heals itself around him. The cellist continues to play…
He thinks of Mrs. Ristovski. He doesn't know what made her the way she is, but something has killed her, he can see now that she is a ghost as well. She has been a ghost for a long time. And to be a ghost while you're still alive is the worst thing he can imagine.
He looks across the street and sees the cameraman staring at him, his mouth open. His camera is in his hands, but not on his shoulder. It hasn't captured him, or the body of the hatless man.
Good, he thinks. I will not live in a city where dead bodies lie abandoned in the streets, and you will not tell the world I do.
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.