The Cellist of Sarajevo

pigeonQuestions to ponder.

Which character has the greatest conflict with himself/herself?

 What do the ‘men on the hills’ represent?

Dragan sent his wife and son away but remained in the city to try to keep his job and protect his apartment.  Why did some people refuse to leave Sarajevo when it was still possible?

What do the details about Kenan’s trips to get water tell us about war?

What is your most valued possession? Would you pay 20 times the price to have it?

Explain the comparison between Kenan and a pigeon.

I have had comments that this was a very depressing read.  In the end did you think it depressing or was there any glimmer of hope?

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The Cellist of Sarajevo

A beautifully done video by the Toronto Public Library

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The Cellist of Sarajevo – Discussion Question – What’s in a name?

MP900385375[1]As we begin part one we have been introduced to the cellist and Arrow.  While the character of the cellist is based upon an actual person Galloway chooses not to provide a name for him. Why do you believe that he chose not to give the cellist a name?

We meet the cellist as he watches his friends and neighbors wait for bread in the market below his window – “playing until he feels his hope return.”  A hope dismantled by the destruction of his city, his opera house and his family as they slept in their beds. He is unaware that a mortar is about to descend upon the market, “It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort.”  Galloway chose to tell the story from multiple perspectives.  How does this help or hinder the telling of the story?

arrowArrow is introduced to the reader as she contemplates which soldier on the hill to target. We learn that she has chosen to shed her true name and her reasoning for this is explained on pages 6 and 7.

“…Arrow believes they took these names so they could separate themselves from what they had to do, so the person who fought and killed could someday be put away.  To hate people because they hated her first, and then to hated them because of what they’ve done to her, has created a desire to separate the part of her that will fight back, that will enjoy fighting back, from the part that never wanted to fight in the first place.  using her real name would make her no different from the men she kills.”

Can changing one’s name erase the past, or eliminate future pain?  Do you think it would it be possible for Arrow to shed her past and the life she has lived during the siege once peace returned?

Galloway has given the other main characters names – why has he?  What effect does the naming have upon the reader? Does giving something a name make you care more about/for it?

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The Siege of Sarajevo began twenty-two years ago, in April 1992, and lasted until February
1996—the longest siege of any capital city in the history of modern warfare. Sarajevo, now
capital of the independent nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been a cultural, religious,
and commercial hub of the Balkans since the 15th Century. The siege was part of the Yugoslav
Wars—a series of complex ethnic conflicts fought between 1991 and 1995 following the
disintegration of Yugoslavia. The siege broke out when the European Community (now the
European Union or EU) recognized Bosnia’s independence. An estimated 18,000 Serb rebels,
led by Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, began bombarding Sarajevo with sniper shots and
shellfire from the hills surrounding the city. Their goal was to create a new Serbian state,
Republika Srpska.
Prior to the conflict, the city was a cosmopolitan center of 525,980 inhabitants that
was approximately 50% Muslim, 30% Serb, 10% Yugoslav, 7% Croat and 3.5% Jewish.
According to a report for the United Nations Commission of Experts, nearly 10,000 persons
were killed or went missing during the siege, including over 1,500 children. An additional
56,000 persons were wounded, including nearly 15,000 children. An average of 329 shell
impacts hit the city each day, causing extensive damage to both civilian and cultural property;
the Council of Europe’s Committee on Culture and Education concluded that most
of the buildings in the city had been damaged to a greater or lesser degree. UNICEF
reported that of the estimated 65,000 to 80,000 children in the city, at least 40% had been
directly shot at by snipers; 51% had seen someone killed; 39% had seen one or more family
members killed; 19% had witnessed a massacre; 48% had their home occupied by someone
else; 73% had their home attacked or shelled; and 89% had lived in underground shelters.
The area has since stabilized, but the effects of the siege will no doubt be felt for generations.
• Bassiouni, M. Cherif, ed. Study of the battle and siege of Sarajevo, Final report of the United Nations
Commission of Experts. Bristol, UK: University of the West of England,
• “Chronology: What happened during the war in Bosnia?” Reuters 21 July 2008.

• Richards, Rogers. “Remember Sarajevo.” Digital Journalist, December 2003.

• Sarajevo Under Siege, 1992-1996.

I have copied information from the One Maryland One Book 2012 booklet.

If you are a teacher and are considering adding The Cellist of Sarjevo to your curriculum there is a wealth of information to be gleaned.  You may also find information via the Jericho Public Library databases.  All you need to unlock these databases is you Jericho Public Library card.

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Steven Galloway

University of British Columbia writing instructor Steven Galloway is the author of three novels: Finnie Walsh, the story of two friends who grow up playing hockey in northern Canada; Ascension, the tale of a Hungarian-born tightrope walker who comes to America and founds a family of circus performers; and The Cellist of Sarajevo, based on stories from the long-running siege of the Bosnian capital during the horrific civil war of the 1990s. “I’m a creative writing professor,” Galloway states on his MySpace page, entitled “StevenGalloway, Unicorn Lover.” “I teach my fiction students that good writing comes not from the head or the heart, but from one’s alicorn,” the unicorn’s horn that brings healing and promotes intimacy. “I also tell them that a good story should have the shape or ‘arc’ of the rainbow trail that unicorns leave when they prance across the sky.” (source: Gale Literature Resource Center – a database available through the Jericho Public Library with your library card)

He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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Our Next Selection – The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

CellistWe’ve moved on from The Last Brother and are now switching gears from the Island of Mauritius  in 1945 to the Sarajevo during the siege.

From the book jacket:

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 bread line. 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.

Please visit the Jericho Public Library and pick up your copy.

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The Last Brother – David and Raj

Boys Laughing Whispering and Telling SecretsLast time we discussed the burgeoning friendship between Raj and David.  Both were imprisoned in a life that didn’t allow nine and ten-year old boys to just be boys.  Raj, badly beaten by his father, ends up in the prison hospital but is free to leave (actually physically thrust out in the arms of his father.)  David, sick with Malaria and Typhoid Fever, spends time in the same hospital but without the freedom to wander outside of the prison walls.

As Raj begins to recover from his injuries David and he begin their friendship.  Even with the language barrier they are able to understand the universal language of boys and venture outside the hospital, but remained within the confines of the prison walls.  The staff seemed to turn a blind eye to their evening escapades.  Why do you think that they did?

Major events in The Last Brother seem to come after a terrible storm.  What do you think Appanah is trying to convey?

After the cyclone David and Raj take shelter temporarily with Raj’s mother.  While knowing that David did not belong there she didn’t betray his presence at their home to either her husband or the police officer.  Raj believes that his actions on the day of the escape where selfishness. What was his mothers motivation? Why do you think she kept quiet?  She knew that he was ill do you think that, as an adult, she should have done something more than allow Raj and David to walk away?

As an adult Raj is filled with regret about David’s death:

“…But when I recall those summer days in 1945, when I speak of David, my heart is heavy, my head teems, and I am so assailed by regrets that I could weep.” (page 125)

Raj was just a young boy and even on reflection he blames only himself – not his mother. Do you understand why?


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The Last Brother – After the Rain

Just a few days after the rain that stole his brothers from him the family moves across the island to enable his father to begin his new job at Beau-Bassin prison.  As the family travels Nathacha Appanah depicts a land lush with vegetation.  Her depiction of this side of the island is in stark contrast to the dust and sugar cane filled land where Raj spent his first eight years.  What, if anything, does this symbolize?  Describe the juxtaposition between the way he was raised and the way he and his wife raised their son.  Why do you think Appanah choose to have Raj only have one son?

At his new school Raj isolates himself from the other children.

“…the other lads called out to me sometimes, I would hold back, say no, and bow my head and the children would whisper among themselves, they used to say I was very sick and playing might kill me.  In truth, they were not wrong.  I was sick for my brothers and I felt sure that if I played with the others, laughed , joined in their games, I would be betraying them, alienating myself from them forever.” (page 31)

Why, after this self-imposed isolation, does Raj latch onto David?  What is it that sets David apart from the other boys that tried to befriend Raj?

An exterior view of the prison near Beau Bassin in which the men among the illegal immigrants to Mandate Palestine deported to Mauritius by the British were held. Accessed: Sept. 30,2014

An exterior view of the prison near Beau Bassin in which the men among the illegal immigrants to Mandate Palestine deported to Mauritius by the British were held. Accessed: Sept. 30,2014

The Prison

Through the barbed wire fence Raj’s first glimpse of Beau-Bassin is of “bushes with wild flowers, then a strip of lush, green grass and pots with gardenias, Marguerite daisies, and roses.”  What Raj called a “kind of tranquil splendor.” It wasn’t until later in reflection he realized that it was “only a facade,  it was all just for show, and if one probed just a little, darkness, squalor, cries, and tears were all there to be uncovered.”

Was this intentional on the part of those in power?  Compare and contrast the differences between Beau-Bassin  and any one of the extermination camps run by the Nazi regime.

Next time we’ll discuss David.


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The Last Brother – Raj

I hope that you’ve picked up your copy of The Last Brother and have begun your journey.

Nathacha Appanah introduces us to Raj as he awakens from a dream of a child now grown, David, impossibly present. Raj struggles with the knowledge that the adult David cannot truly be with him.

     ” Suddenly I had had enough of waiting, I reached out my hand to him and it was morning, my room empty, the light dazzling, David vanished, the dream gone, my arm outstretched, outside the bedclothes, numb with cold, and my face bathed in tears.”

2007_jewish_mauritius_01For the past 60 years Raj has not dreamt of David.  Why does David visit him now?  Raj has lived on the island his entire life and yet has never visited the cemetery, but is compelled to afterward.    The author admits that she had no knowledge of the camp while she was growing up in Mauritius. Is there a lesson here for the reader?  

Why do you think the author chose to set the story so far after the actual events?  

In chapter one Raj reflects back to his time with David and wonders “I am the one who has survived and I am at pains to know why.   I have led a plain life, I have done nothing remarkable…”  In chapter 2, Raj is now an eight year old boy, unremarkable and, in his eyes, less worthy than his older brother Anil and his younger brother Vinod.  They have been living in abysmal conditions in a camp for sugar workers, the children of an alcoholic brutal man.  Raj is chosen to be the one child in the family to attend school, he is the only child that survives the flood.  “Why me?”

Raj is a “common man” who has survived a traumatic youth to become a beloved father and successful adult.  How has he have survived and thrived?  Why did the author choose such a “common man” to share this story?

Posted in David, Mauritius, Nathacha Appanah, Raj, The Last Brother, The Last Brother by Natacha Appanah, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In the Shadows of Beau Bassin

I came upon this short documentary and thought I would share it.

Kevin Harris, a South African independent filmmaker, produced a documentary entitled “In the Shadows of Beau Bassin” which narrates the saga of the deportation and detainment of Jewish refugees in Mauritius.

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