The war in Sarajevo took place in the 1990s. Galloway got the idea for the book from a man who did just what the fictional cellist does – he plays his cello for 22 days, one day for each person killed in an explosion he witnesses from his apartment window. In his small book that wallops assumptions about heroism, grandeur and what lies at the bottom of the human spirit, Galloway describes big events that occur around the “mortar-pocked, sniper infested streets of Sarajevo.”
Galloway probably wouldn’t agree the occurrences are big ones. He writes repeatedly that they are small, inconsequential. He acknowledges only one momentous event – the explosion upon 22 people waiting to buy bread. Even this moment is slight –an explosion isn’t unusual in war – but this one’s impact erupts the status quo: “A target expands in size brought into focus by time and velocity. There was a moment before impact that was the last instant of things as they were. Then the visible world exploded.”
It’s this “last instant of things as they were” around which Galloway weaves his story through the experiences of four people. A cellist witnesses the explosion and resolves to play his cello for 22 days, one day for each person killed, in the spot where they died. The cellist appears through the omniscient author’s eye only once, at the book’s beginning. Later, he surfaces in the thoughts and words of the other characters who change because of his action.
We meet Arrow first. A young woman who “can make a bullet do what others can’t,” she has turned her university target shooting team skills into expert sniping. She aims at the “men on the hills” who in turn consistently pick off Sarajevo citizens, causing them to fear walking the streets. To her goes the job of protecting the cellist.
The other characters are Kenan and Dragan. Kenan bravely crosses town every four days to fetch water; yet, he feels himself a coward, one that will soon turn 40 though he feels like an old man. He didn’t join the defending army, doesn’t think he could kill anyone, and struggles twice a week to fill six bottles, including two for his neighbor Mrs. Ristovski whose containers lack handles. Kenan happens upon the cellist one day on his way home with bottles full.
Dragan’s story lasts only a few hours at an intersection targeted by snipers. There, he meets an old friend, Emila, who tells him about the cellist who will play that day for the 22nd time. Though Dragan will hear the cellist play only after we meet him, his talk with Emila makes him realize that the cellist isn’t making a grand gesture; he wants only to stop the terrible killing. He thinks, “Perhaps the only thing that will stop it from getting worse is people doing the things they know how to do. The musician, the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra, does just that: “That was what he knew how to be. He made the idea of music an actuality.”
Later, Dragan thinks he himself might be a coward and that’s OK: “There’s no such thing as bravery. There are no heroes, no villains, no cowards. There’s what he can do and what he can’t. There’s right and wrong and nothing else.” For the people who gather for 22 days to listen, the music takes away their despair and gives them hope. For Arrow, Kenan and Dragan, it reminds them of the goodness in the world. They stop reacting to the war and start doing what they can do. Arrow stops hating, Dragan stops running and Kenan continues to fetch water with his sights set on rebuilding Sarajevo someday.
Even so, Galloway insists the cellist’s action isn’t brave or grand as he voices through Arrow. “… She believes life happens … one small thing at a time, a series of inconsequential junctions any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster. There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way.”
There are big events that change people and eventually the world. However, the actions that cause them and the actions that follow them come from people doing what they know how to do. Galloway uses war to show that those small acts occur in just moments, and they can change a person’s life. And changing a life? That’s big.