Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Art and War

Did you know: the Siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege in the history of modern warfare (April 1992 - February 1996)? For a fictional look into this piece of history I can recommend The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. Galloway follows four individuals as they go about their lives in the besieged city. Two of the individuals are based on real people: Arrow, a female sniper; and the cellist of the title. The other two characters are a young father trying to protect and care for his wife and three young children; and an older baker whose wife and son were able to escape the city at the beginning of the siege.

Initially I was frustrated that Galloway did not provide enough background to give me a better understanding of the Sarajevo situation. Then I realized that, while this story is set in a particular place and time, there are many other areas of ethnic conflict. I do not doubt that the experiences of this one are replicated in the others. I think it must be the randomness of the bombings and sniper fire that is most terrifying. The simple act of going for a loaf of bread or a jug of water in a city with many exposed bridges can take hours. Sarajevo had the particular disadvantage of being surrounded by hills from which the enemy snipers could attack and shoot with relative impunity, relative because of persons like Arrow whose experience on the university target-shooting team before the war made her a valuable defender. Whether one lived or died had nothing to do with bring careful or reasonable.

As the novel proceeds we watch each character struggle with matters of life and death - literally. There are acts of cowardice but also acts of courage and humanity. Each has to decide whether to stay or try to leave; whether to resist or to capitulate. Some fight for family; some for country; and some for themselves. Then there is the question of the manner of resistance: violent (Arrow with her rifle) or otherwise (the cellist with his art). Each of the four has personal demons with which to wrestle. As they look forward to the end of the conflict, an end which from their vantage points is not at all certain, they know they will have to answer the question: What did you do in the war? And answer in such a way that leaves their integrity and self-respect in tact. To the author's credit I felt drawn in to their individual struggles and rejoiced in their acts of quiet individual heroism. In the end I think that is what will save us in the face of such brutality.

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