A Cellist Draws Fire at the Library

by Bill Peak

OK, I'll admit it, sometimes an uncontrollable urge comes over me to put on a funny hat, grab a pair of binoculars, and go out and look for Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers and Short-Billed Marsh Wrens. That's right, I'm a bird-watcher. I've tried the twelve-step program, I've tried the patch, but so far nothing's been found to replace the pleasure I take in looking at birds.

And it's not just their beauty that appeals to me. True, the sure knowledge that the trees around us hide Scarlet Tanagers and Indigo Buntings can make it hard for me to stay at my desk, but I also delight in the life histories of these animals. I well remember, for instance, the time I watched the travails of a dove who had built her nest on an exposed limb near our deck. After she'd laid her eggs, it turned cold and then it began to rain. For three days and three nights the rain fell, yet that poor bedraggled creature never once abandoned her clutch. Hobbes might label such a life (as he did ours) “nasty, brutish, and short,” but that dove taught me something about perseverance, and the simple dignity accruing to those that care without counting the cost.

And now along comes One Maryland One Book to give me another reason to think about the small lives lived so humbly all around us. One Maryland One Book is the program of the Maryland Humanities Council in which people all across the state read the same book at the same time. This year's selection, The Cellist of Sarajevo, tells the story of three unrelated people who find themselves trapped in the title city during the Serbian siege of 1992. To varying degrees each is touched by the story of a fourth character, a professional cellist who, in defiance of the snipers killing civilians all around him, goes every day at the same time to the same place in plain view of the heights from which those snipers operate and plays Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor.

Author Steven Galloway has taken the true story of Bosnian cellist Vedran Smailović and turned it into a modern morality tale, at once both intense thriller and exquisite work of art. The story's drama derives in no small part from the fact that each of its characters lives with the sure knowledge that the air around them can—and very likely soon will—fill with bullets. Death is everywhere, and they watch for it with a vigilance that makes their lives seem in some ways more alive, more acute, than our own.

If you want to know what this look likes in real life, watch a bird-feeder. Birds live in a world where the slightest movement—a quivering leaf, a sailing shadow—can signal doom. Like Sarajevans at a street market, when birds gather at a feeder they must keep one eye on the sky for harriers, another on the bushes for cats, and a third on the ground for snakes. Their lives, however small, are lived big: all senses on high alert. Similarly, the people of Sarajevo. I have read and enjoyed every One Maryland One Book, but The Cellist of Sarajevo is far and away the best of the lot. Please, if you get a chance, check out one of the library's 87 copies, read it, and then sign up for one of the book discussions I'll be hosting in September. I look forward to hearing what you think.