Mar 26, 2010

The Battle of Grand Avenue

The core of what it is to be human: your life is wondrous, and it won’t last forever.(The Cellist of Sarajevo, paraphrase, page 5)
Streaming in from scattered daytime haunts, surrounded by a warm, welcoming home full of the smells of good food, the group shares chosen details of their lives, large and small. They pause to remember a local high school baseball player in critical condition at a hospital. Some absent group members are grappling with health issues too, their parents’ or their own. Three around the table share stories of pride in their daughters on memorable and momentous trips: national ski championships in Oregon, a life-changing month in Thailand and the Philippines, continued community-building in a small town in Mexico. Southeast Asia provides the lightest badinage, wandering down the byways of elephant riding, swarming beach vendors, baby back ribs made from real babies (?), and dwarves.

There is always more than enough good food and good drink. This night, it’s three kinds of lasagna (pesto, artichoke, and “boeuf”, all somehow evocative of woodlands), two kinds of salad, several wines, slivovitz plum brandy, rakia peach brandy, and Karlovacko, a Croatian pilsner in 20-ounce bottles. Later, delicious cakes appear. The men “eat until their stomachs can hold no more” (as characters in the book can only dream of - page 188). Doug, the host, clearly outdoes himself.


Talk drifts to the book, Stephen Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo. The once harmonious group separates into two distinct camps, like the men in the hills and the people down in the streets. The men in the hills see the book as a finely-wrought work of art, viewing it from above and outside, admiring its technique and its essential distillation of the thoughts and emotions of civilians trapped inside a war. The men in the streets long to inhabit the story and know its characters, resisting its abstract qualities and wishing it had more real history and fully-formed people. Some find themselves passing between the two camps, agreeing with both the lofty praise and the trenchant criticism.

An army of one, sticking to his guns, loaded or not, Stan first reviews another book, one he had advocated choosing a month earlier, like a Serb partisan rehashing Prince Lazar's crushing defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The others avert their gazes, unmoved even by vivid tales of flaming buttocks. But Stan's criticisms of the book that was chosen hit home for many (save Doug, who, flabbergasted, finds Stan's approach somewhat "irrational"). Though they may not find it "weak on almost every point", as he does, his assessments of its style and characters clearly set the tone for most of the discussion that follows.

Up in the hills, Armando says, “It fits this time in my life; it’s perfect”, and “I like that it isn’t clear on the history.” Andrew thinks it “extraordinary”, finding the character development “terrific” and saying, “My breath was taken away.” Paul (by email) thinks that “Galloway does a great job of evoking emotions ranging from desperation to hope” and finds Arrow’s end moving. He believes it’s “one of the best crafted and most compelling books [he’s] read in a number of months, and probably the best that [he’s] read of the club selections in the past year.” [Editor’s note: This contrast of "months" vs. "years" seems to indicate that Paul either 1) thinks his non-MBC reading is better than our book club selections, or 2) doesn’t read many of our club’s selections.] Larry (also by email) sees fiction as “exactly the right vehicle” to describe the experience of the siege of Sarajevo. He and Tom A. both point out the nuanced use of dilemmas. Is it better to cling to the past or accept the present? Is it better to die quickly or slowly? At the same time, Larry dislikes the characters' resignation and the book’s lack of resolution, finding Arrow’s final choice especially unconvincing (as does Roy). He wishes the snipers in the hills had been given voice and faces too. Doug praises the book but acknowledges that the structure and occasionally “heavy-handed” writing become obstacles at times.

Dean, and many of his comrades down below in the streets, thinks grayness has seeped too much into the book’s bones. (Oddly, a similar bleakness was also a theme of last month’s Bad Land.) Larry questions whether any of the writing rises to true greatness, finding no passages truly memorable. Several members find the style suffocating and the characters flat, aptly described by George as “caring about the situations but not the characters.” Garth suggests that had he heard a recording of the Albinoni Adagio before reading the book, its remembered sounds might have served as a welcome embellishment to the text’s spare language. He wishes the unrelenting terror (something that Tom J. found to go on far too long) had been combined with more about the war itself. Terry thinks the book is overwrought, verging on maudlin, as if “written by a 15-year-old girl”. Finally, several members point out that, though the book is called The Cellist of Sarajevo, the cellist is little more than a plot device, a cipher.

Later, looking back at passages while writing his summary, the scribe of San Rafael finds more in Kenan and Dragan than he’d remembered. When Dragan sees surprising strength in Emina, when Kenan banters with his wife about buying cakes, when Dragan chooses to believe in a future and says “Good afternoon” to a stranger, or when he realizes he doesn’t wish that he were in Italy - these are choices to remain human. Perhaps these short and rare passages aren’t enough, maybe the ghosts of what the people once were are the ghosts of what the book might have been. But the strongly held and sharply divided opinions about The Cellist of Sarajevo clearly make for a more lively and interesting discussion. As pointed out by several, its modest length also helps, since, for the first time in recent memory, nearly everyone actually finishes the book.


For next month, the group chooses life, hope, and excitement, as embodied in Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's SuperFreakonomics, rumored to be the story of an exercise routine accompanied by Rick James music.