As is typical for a war novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo portrays acts of heroism. However, Galloway uses his focus on civilians to expand the definition of war heroism from soldiers’ physical bravery under threat to the more quotidian activities of living life amid violence. Galloway begins his exploration of heroism by showing the way that his characters fail to meet the traditional ideals of heroism. Dragan, an older man who has lived his entire life in this city, is filled with such hopelessness that he struggles to even speak to those around him, much less react bravely when he sees an old acquaintance, Emina, get shot in the elbow on the street. Kenan, a middle-aged Sarajevan father, also finds himself helpless in the face of violence, standing in shock when a shell explodes at the brewery where Kenan collects water. Though he wishes he could be one of the people helping the injured in the aftermath, Kenan finds himself able to do nothing but stand and look at the wreckage and the dead, and then collect his water. Arrow, a former civilian who has joined the militia defending Sarajevo as a sniper, is the most conventionally heroic character in the novel. Yet Galloway complicates Arrow’s heroism when she is assigned to protect the cellist and Arrow finds herself questioning if it is really heroic to kill other human beings who seem to appreciate the cellist’s music as much as the Sarajevans do.
Over the course of the novel, as Galloway continues the stories of his seemingly unheroic characters, he begins to portray a different kind of heroism. After Emina gets shot on her way to see the cellist, Dragan decides to go himself to see the cellist so he can then tell Emina about it. Though Dragan has spent the war avoiding contact with others, he decides to put himself in danger of sniper fire in order to help his injured friend connect with the world. Kenan, for his part, decides to go back to the shelled brewery and get water for his crotchety elderly neighbor, even though it will be difficult for him. He decides to put his responsibility to care for others above his own personal safety and comfort.
Meanwhile, Galloway portrays Arrow’s act of conventional war heroism—her assassination of the enemy sniper—as a moral failure, rather than heroic. Since she kills the opposing sniper while he is enjoying the cellist’s music, the novel depicts Arrow’s act not as protecting the cellist, but as betraying the ideals for which the cellist is playing. Instead, the novel suggests that Arrow’s moment of heroism is when she refuses to shoot at innocent civilians in defiance of her orders. Ultimately, Galloway portrays the cellist, who puts himself in danger to memorialize victims of an attack, as the most heroic of all. Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow all praise the cellist for his brave effort to restore a small bit of beauty to the devastated city. Further, the cellist inspires the other citizens of Sarajevo to see beyond mere struggles for survival and reconnect with the higher ideals of humanity that will eventually help Sarajevo recover. In other words, the cellist reminds citizens that true heroism comes with empathy.
Heroism Quotes in The Cellist of Sarajevo
"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.
Kenan is able to identify three types of people here. There are those who ran away as soon as the shells fell, their instinct for self-preservation stronger than their sense of altruism or civic duty. Then there are those who didn't run, who are now covered in the blood of the wounded, and they work with a myopic urgency to help those who can be saved, and to remove those who can't to go to whatever awaits them next. Then there's the third type, the group Kenan falls into. They stand, mouths gaping, and watch as others run for help. He's surprised he didn't run, isn't part of the first group, and he wishes he were part of the second.
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 knows that if he wants to be one of the people who rebuild the city one of the people who have the right even to speak about how Sarajevo should repair itself then he has to go outside and face the men on the hills. His family needs water, and he will get it for them. The city is full of people doing the same as he is, and they all find a way to continue with life. They're not cowards, and they're not heroes.