The Cellist of Sarajevo
A spare and haunting, wise and beautiful novel about war and the endurance of the human spirit and the subtle ways individuals reclaim their humanity. In a city under siege, four people whose lives have been upended are ultimately reminded of what it is to be human. From his window, a musician sees twenty-two of his friends and neighbors waiting in a breadline. Then, in a flash, they are killed by a mortar attack. In an act of defiance, the man picks up his cello and decides to play at the site of the shelling for twenty-two days, honoring their memory. Elsewhere, a young man leaves home to collect drinking water for his family and, in the face of danger, must weigh the value of generosity against selfish survivalism. A third man, older, sets off in search of bread and distraction and instead runs into a long-ago friend who reminds him of the city he thought he had lost, and the man he once was. As both men are drawn into the orbit of cello music, a fourth character—a young woman, a sniper—holds the fate of the cellist in her hands. As she protects him with her life, her own army prepares to challenge the kind of person she has become. A novel of great intensity and power, and inspired by a true story, The Cellist of Sarajevo poignantly explores how war can change one’s definition of humanity, the effect of music on our emotional endurance, and how a romance with the rituals of daily life can itself be a form of resistance.
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Did you know that you can look up any word in the text of the book or the text of the questions and answers? Just click (or press on mobile devices) the word you want to define and hold until the blue text selector pops up. When you release, a define option will appear. Since it's so easy to look up words, make sure you use this feature frequently. Are there any words on this page that you need to look up?
Even though the cellist was not in the building during the bombing, why does he feel as if he were?
The author tells us at the beginning of the novel that this is a work of fiction. The Bosnian War, however, was a real occurrence. Multi-ethnic fighting began after the dismantling of Yugoslavia. Depending on who you ask, it was either a civil war or a war of aggression. (This annotation contains a link)
Analyze the character of Arrow based on what we have learned about her so far.
Who are the "men on the hills"? What is the effect of referring to the enemy in such vague terms?
What does this contribute to Arrow's character?
Memory, and how it can cut like a knife, is a recurring motif in the novel. Pay attention to how each character is affected by their memories of Sarajevo before the war.
What does Kenan admire about Mrs. Ristovski?
People lined up to get water from a river during the Bosnian War. (This annotation contains an image)
How does Dragan remember Sarajevo? Does it differ much from how Arrow and Kenan remember it?
This hand painted sign was placed in Sniper Alley. It reads "Watch out -- Sniper." (This annotation contains an image)
The reference to puppets and puppeteers is an example of
This video will give you a better idea of the situation in Sarajevo at the time. (This annotation contains a video)
Ultimately, what does Kenan lack in order to be a soldier?
The limitations of what Kenan and his colleagues thought possible are tested rather quickly. They can't believe that after all that they have seen, and all that their country has been through, the targeted killing of civilians would be possible or allowed to continue.
We continue to see how memory affects the characters. How does Kenan think memory will play a role in the future, after the war?
Gavrilo Princip's assassination of the Archduke precipitated WWI. To some Serbs, he is considered a hero. (This annotation contains a link)
What is one distinguishing characteristic of Kenan that he does not share with the other two main characters?
The use of snipers in warfare became a popular tactic during WWI. Like Arrow, many of them were recruited amateurs who were trained to spend extended periods of time (sometimes weeks) tracking a target. (This annotation contains a link)
What do you make of Nevin's action here? Why does he put his hands in his lap?
The cellist in the story is based on a real person, Vedran Smailović. During the siege of Sarajevo, he would perform in ruined buildings throughout the city. (This annotation contains an image)
Why would the 'men in the hills' want to target the cellist specifically?
One of Dragan's ways of coping with his environment and situation is to ignore other people, even those he has a personal connection to. Why do you think he does this?
What is ironic about Emina's mother's joke?
Unfortunately, that help from other nations came later rather than sooner. The conflict began in 1992 and NATO did not become involved until August of 1995. (This annotation contains a video)
What is the point of Emina's anecdote?
Which literary device is used in the highlighted example?
Why do you think Arrow does not wish to answer the question? What do you think her answer might be?
What perplexes Arrow about the cellist?
Being surrounded by so much violence consistently can lead to a kind of fatigue, if not desensitization.
Based on Arrow's preparations, what qualities does a good sniper possess?
Watch this video of a cello quartet playing Albinoni's Adagio, the song the cellist played at the beginning of the novel. (This annotation contains a video)
Look up the term "pyre" using the definition feature. What do the people who leave these flowers view his performances as?
Libraries and museums are major targets during insurgencies because they are repositories of history and culture. During times of conflict, archivists, librarians, and curators take precautionary measures, even taking artifacts home with them to hide, in order to protect them. (This annotation contains a video)
Which line from this page includes an example of personification?
Based on what you know about Kenan, analyze the reasons why he is unable to break his promise to Mrs. Ristovski.
How would you characterize the tone of this conversation? Why does Dragan pursue his question, even though it makes both him and Emina uncomfortable?
Apparently, Smailovic was displeased, to say the least, that this book was written. Read this brief article to learn more about his reaction to Galloway's book. Does knowing this change how you read the novel and your own reactions to it? (This annotation contains a link)
Crossing the road actually is quite a brave act in this instance, so Emina's statement can be considered as
Here is one photographer's story about her time covering 'Sniper Alley' in Sarajevo during the war. (This annotation contains a link)
What has changed Arrow's outlook since the previous day?
Wartime always brings about black markets. Read this short essay on the black market during the Siege of Sarajevo if you would like to know more. (This annotation contains a link)
Why do you think the other sniper has not killed the cellist? What does this suggest about the character of the "enemy"?
Though Galloway does not use any real names, the most prominent leader of the Siege of Sarajevo was Slobodan Milosevic. He died in 2006 at the Hague while on trial for a litany of horrible acts, committed during the war (including genocide). (This annotation contains an image)
In the time that she has joined fighting in the war, what does Arrow see herself as?
This is the eternal conundrum of war -- a soldier is asked to kill another human who, in a different circumstance, could be a friend. Read Thomas Hardy's poem "The Man He Killed," which is a short meditation on this very idea. (This annotation contains a link)
What do Kenan's worries regarding the water reveal about him?
Unexploded shells and landmines from the war continue to be a problem in the region. These aftereffects of war can continue to kill long after the conflict has ended. Armed unexploded bombs and other ammunition from WWI are still being found throughout Europe 100 years later. (This annotation contains a video)
In your own words, explain Kenan's argument here. Do you think it is a valid argument?
Think about all of the ways that Kenan denigrates himself here. Do you think this is because of survivor's guilt?
What stands out about this analogy?
This bit of information clues in the reader on the timeline of the book. Arrow's narrative is paced differently than Kenan's and Dragan's.
Describe the different landscapes of war, as seen by Dragan. Are there any distinct battlefields any more?
Here is an excerpt of a review of the book "Sarajevo Under Siege: Anthropology in Wartime" regarding the Sarajevo citizens' loss of normalcy: "As a civilian population that had no direct experience of war since World War II, the people of Sarajevo were placed in the incomprehensible position of having to adjust to the violence of the Bosnian War and the powerlessness that accompanied it. In her first chapter, 'Civilian, Soldier, Deserter,' Maček identifies three nonsequential and often overlapping modes according to which Sarajevans made sense of their experiences of siege. First, she describes the 'civilian mode' of perceiving war, whereby people experience disbelief that the peacetime social norms have collapsed, leaving them vulnerable to violence. Next, she identifies the 'soldier mode,' during which people align themselves with one or more of the warring factions in an attempt to negotiate some kind of protection and solidarity, and lend some rationality and acceptability to the violence they experience. Finally, as people become disillusioned with the ideological rationale for the conflict, they enter the 'deserter mode,' wherein ideological justifications and affiliations are rejected and they take responsibility for their role in the violence."
Why does Nermin think it is time for Arrow to 'disappear'?
Below is a picture of a bombed building in Sarajevo. (This annotation contains an image)
Why is leaving the city problematic for Arrow?
Consider why this would concern Arrow. Is it worse to have never heard of a military official as opposed to knowing his/her reputation?
How is Karaman different than Nermin? How does he represent what Nermin warned Arrow about before his death?
The shared traumatic experiences between these two men allow them to communicate without speaking. Ismet knows that Kenan is not alright, and Kenan knows that Ismet knows. Ismet might not have been at the brewery bombing, but he has been through enough bombings to understand what Kenan is going through.
Kenan comparing his burden to that of Atlas is an example of what literary device?
Below is a picture of the cellist performing at a bombed out building. (This annotation contains an image)
Why do you think Kenan is compelled to say this to the woman? Do you think the woman is comforted by this?
This refusal to live like the dead is a recurring motif, and also connects all three main characters (and even the cellist).
Arrow's decision to either refuse or accept this new situation represents a
Below is a picture of a Serbian sniper in an abandoned building. (This annotation contains an image)
Analyze how Arrow and Hasan are working under different assumptions about war and who the enemy really is.
What do you think will be the consequences of Arrow's refusal to cooperate with this faction?
Giving an animal human qualities, such as a sense of purpose and agency, is called what
This decision marks a turning point for Dragan. Just as Arrow takes a stand in the previous chapter, so does Dragan. He is choosing to engage, and to act without cowardice or fear.
In your own words, explain what motivated Dragan's actions.
Pay attention to how the tone and movement of the narrative changes in this short last section.
How would you describe Dragan's perception of Sarajevo?
Listen to the song 'Miss Sarajevo' by U2, and consider how it relates to any of the characters in this story. Bono wrote this song for the 1995 documentary of the same name about the underground resistance movement during the conflict. (This annotation contains a video)
How is the end of the story going to be different for Arrow than it is for Dragan and Kenan? Is this wholly unexpected?