As the characters in The Cellist of Sarajevo make their way through their devastated city, they are beset by memories of the city as it was before the siege. They find these memories of the old, beautiful city difficult to reconcile with the war-torn city in which they currently live. Even worse, they are faced with the possibility that their city will never return to the way it was before the war, which forces them to ask which vision of Sarajevo is the “true” Sarajevo. The novel presents such thoughts not just as key to the psychology of the citizens of Sarajevo, but as the key to the future of Sarajevo itself.
Through the beginning and middle of the novel, Dragan, Kenan, and Arrow have, each in their own way, accepted the “war-torn” Sarajevo as reality. Dagan has given up on human interaction, while Kenan is focused solely on the survival of his family. Most dramatically, Arrow has transformed herself into a weapon and is focused on killing as many enemy soldiers as possible. But as each character is affected by their own experiences (particularly by hearing the cellist), each of their views shifts and they begin to see the city as being a place worth saving and a place capable of being saved. The novel then suggests that by acting as if the city is both worth saving, they create that reality: Dragan, for instance, makes this image of a better Sarajevo a reality by refusing to let a foreign camera crew film a man who has been killed by a sniper. Dragan refuses to let Sarajevo be seen by the world as a city in which dead bodies are commonly on the street, even if that is the reality during much of the siege. In addition, he desperately wants to be one of the men “worthy of rebuilding Sarajevo” after the war, and he believes that only those who hold on to hope will be able to do that. Kenan also refuses to let the war make him into “a ghost while… alive,” or somebody who has no hope for the future. He protects his children’s innocence, continues to support his neighbor even though it is an added burden, and jokes with his wife about going out to get the ingredients for a cake. That these characters maintain empathy and try to keep their lives enjoyable makes the city a place of life rather than death.
The novel portrays the citizens of the city as existing in a kind of war against hopelessness, and it suggests that the primary weapon in that war is to create a different reality—one full of life, and dignity, and hope. At the same time, however, even as they refuse to bend to the hopeless reality of the war, the characters of the novel also hope that the terrible reality of the siege of Sarajevo is not forgotten. Even as Dragan stops the camera crews from filming the street with the dead bodies, he wants the camera crews to continue recording some aspects of the siege so that the world will witness the destruction in Sarajevo and not let such a thing happen again. Despite these hopes for remembrance, though, the novel puts the Bosnian War into a broader context that suggests that memories of the war are unlikely to have a positive effect. Kenan’s elderly neighbor Mrs. Ristovski lived through WWII, after all, and now similar events are happening again. The novel itself, then, can be seen as a kind of call to avoid such atrocities in the future. Just as the characters work to maintain hope in the face of the despair of the war, the novel works to maintain hope in the ability of humanity to see the horrors of hatred and war and refuse to bow to them.
Reality, Image, and Memory ThemeTracker
Reality, Image, and Memory 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.
"You've never lived through a war. You have no idea what it will be like."
"It won't last long," he said. "The rest of Europe will do something to stop it from escalating."
She snorted. "That won't matter for me. I'm too old to do the things one must do in wartime to survive."
Kenan wasn't sure what she meant. He knew that she had been married just before the last war and that her husband was killed during the initial days of the German invasion. "It might not be that bad," he said, regretting it immediately, knowing it wasn't true.
"You have no idea," she repeated.
"Well," he said, "I will help you. Everyone in the building will help each other. You'll see."
Mrs. Ristovski picked up her coffee and took a sip. She didn't look at Kenan, refusing to acknowledge his smile. "We'll see," she said.
Now, after all that has happened, Dragan knows that the Sarajevo he remembers, the city he grew up in and was proud of and happy with, likely never existed. If he looks around him, it's hard to see what once was, or maybe was. More and more it seems like there has never been anything here but the men on the hills with guns and bombs. Somehow that doesn't seem right either, yet these are the only two options.
As a schoolboy, Kenan had been made to visit the small museum, now destroyed, that commemorated the assassination. He has always been slightly ashamed that, for a generation, when the world thought of Sarajevo, it was as a place of murder. It isn't clear to him how the world will think of the city now that thousands have been murdered. He suspects that what the world wants most is not to think of it at a1l.
“The last time I saw him, he told me, 'What is coming is worse than anything you can imagine,’” Dragan says. “He killed himself the day the war began.”
Emina shakes her head. “This cannot be as bad as what happened in those camps.”
Dragan considers this, wonders how relative suffering is. “No, it's not. I don't think he thought it would be. But I think he believed that what he and others suffered there meant something, that people had learned from it. But they haven't.”
"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.
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.