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The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover

This brilliant novel with universal resonance tells the story of three people trying to survive in a city rife with the extreme fear of desperate times, and of the sorrowing cellist who plays undaunted in their midst.

One day a shell lands in a bread line and kills twenty-two people as the cellist watches from a window in his flat. He vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the twenty-two victims. The Adagio had been re-created from a fr …

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The Cellist

It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expanded 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.

In 1945, an Italian musicologist found four bars of a sonata’s bass line in the remnants of the firebombed Dresden Music Library. He believed these notes were the work of the seventeenth-century Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni, and spent the next twelve years reconstructing a larger piece from the charred manuscript fragment. The resulting composition, known as Albinoni’s Adagio, bears little resemblance to most of Albinoni’s work and is considered fraudulent by most scholars. But even those who doubt its authenticity have difficulty denying the Adagio’s beauty.

Nearly half a century later, it’s this contradiction that appeals to the cellist. That something could be almost erased from existence in the landscape of a ruined city, and then rebuilt until it is new and worthwhile, gives him hope. A hope that, now, is one of a limited number of things remaining for the besieged citizens of Sarajevo and that, for many, dwindles each day.

And so today, like every other day in recent memory, the cellist sits beside the window of his second-floor apartment and plays until he feels his hope return. He rarely plays the Adagio. Most days he’s able to feel the music rejuvenate him as simply as if he were filling a car with gasoline. But some days this isn’t the case. If, after several hours, this hope doesn’t return, he will pause to gather himself, and then he and his cello will coax Albinoni’s Adagio out of the firebombed husk of Dresden and into the mortar-pocked, sniper-infested streets of Sarajevo. By the time the last few notes fade, his hope will be restored, but each time he’s forced to resort to the Adagio it becomes harder, and he knows its effect is finite. There are only a certain number of Adagios left in him, and he will not recklessly spend this precious currency.

It wasn’t always like this. Not long ago the promise of a happy life seemed almost inviolable. Five years ago at his sister’s wedding, he’d posed for a family photograph, his father’s arm slung behind his neck, fingers grasping his shoulder. It was a firm grip, and to some it would have been painful, but to the cellist it was the opposite. The fingers on his flesh told him that he was loved, that he had always been loved, and that the world was a place where above all else the things that were good would find a way to burrow into you. Though he knew all of this then, he would give up nearly anything to be able to go back in time and slow down that moment, if only so he could more clearly recall it now. He would very much like to feel his father’s hand on his shoulder again.

He can tell today won’t be an Adagio day. It has been only a half-hour since he sat down beside the window, but already he feels a little bit better. Outside, a line of people wait to buy bread. It’s been over a week since the market’s had any bread to buy, and he considers whether he might join them. Many of his friends and neighbours are in line. He decides against it, for now. There’s still work to do.

It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expanded 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.

When the mortars destroyed the Sarajevo Opera Hall, the cellist felt as if he were inside the building, as if the bricks and glass that once bound the structure together became projectiles that sliced and pounded into him, shredding him beyond recognition. He was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra. That was what he knew how to be. He made the idea of music an actuality. When he stepped on stage in his tuxedo he was transformed into an instrument of deliverance. He gave to the people who came to listen what he loved most in the world. He was as solid as the vice of his father’s hand.

Now he doesn’t care whether anyone hears him play or not. His tuxedo hangs in the closet, untouched. The guns perched on the hills surrounding Sarajevo have dismantled him just as they have the opera hall, just as they have his family home in the night while his father and mother slept, just as they will, eventually, everything.

The geography of the siege is simple. Sarajevo is a long ribbon of flat land surrounded on all sides by hills. The men on the hills control all the high ground and one peninsula of level ground in the middle of the city, Grbavica. They fire bullets and mortars and tank shells and grenades into the rest of the city, which is being defended by one tank and small hand-held weapons. The city is being destroyed.

The cellist doesn’t know what is about to happen. Initially the impact of the shell won’t even register. For a long time he’ll stand at his window and stare. Through the carnage and confusion he’ll notice a woman’s handbag, soaked in blood and sparkled with broken glass. He won’t be able to tell whom it belongs to. Then he’ll look down and see he has dropped his bow on the floor, and somehow it will seem to him that there’s a great connection between these two objects. He won’t understand what the connection is, but the feeling that it exists will compel him to undress, walk to the closet and pull the dry cleaner’s plastic from his tuxedo.

He will stand at the window all night and all through the next day. Then, at four o’clock in the afternoon, twenty-four hours after the mortar fell on his friends and neighbours while they waited to buy bread, he will bend down and pick up his bow. He will carry his cello and stool down the narrow flight of stairs to the empty street. The war will go on around him as he sits in the small crater left at the mortar’s point of impact. He’ll play Albinoni’s Adagio. He’ll do this every day for twenty-two days, a day for each person killed. Or at least he’ll try. He won’t be sure he will survive. He won’t be sure he has enough Adagios left.

The cellist doesn’t know any of this now, as he sits at his window in the sun and plays. He isn’t yet aware. But it’s already on its way. It screams downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expands in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There is a moment before impact that is the last instant of things as they are. Then the visible world explodes.

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The Friends of Meager Fortune

The Friends of Meager Fortune

edition:Paperback
tagged :

Growing up in a prominent lumber family in the Miramichi, brothers Will and Owen Jameson know little of the world beyond their town and the great men who work the forest, including their father. But as young men, the boys couldn’t be more different — where seventeen-year-old Will is headstrong and rugged, able to hold his own in the woods or in a fight, Owen, three years his junior, is literary and sensitive. What worries their mother Mary, however, is the prophecy told to her by a local wom …

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ONE

I had to walk up the back way, through a wall of dark winter nettles, to see the ferocious old house from this vantage point. A black night and snow falling, the four turrets rising into the fleeing clouds above me. A house already ninety years old and with more history than most in town.

His name was Will Jameson.

His family was in lumber, or was Lumber, and because of his father’s death he left school when just a boy and took over the reins of the industry when he was not yet sixteen. He would wake at dawn, and deal with men, sitting in offices in his rustic suit or out on a cruise walking twenty miles on snowshoes, be in camp for supper and direct men twice as old as he.

By the time he was seventeen he was known as the great Will Jameson of the great Bartibog – an appendage as whimsical as it was grandiose, and some say self-imposed.

As a child I saw the map of the large region he owned – dots for his camps, and Xs for his saws. I saw his picture at the end of the hallway – under the cold moon that played on the chairs and tables covered in white sheets, the shadow of his young, ever youthful face; an idea that he had not quite escaped the games of childhood before he needed gamesmanship.

If we Canadians are called hewers of wood and drawers of water, and balk, young Will Jameson did not mind this assumption, did not mind the crass biblical analogy, or perhaps did not know or care it was one, and leapt toward it in youthful pride, as through a burning ring. The strength of all moneyed families is their ignorance of or indifference to chaff. And it was this indifference to jealousy and spite that created the destiny Jameson believed in (never minding the Jamesian insult toward it), which made him prosperous, at a place near the end of the world.

When he was about to be born his mother went on the bay and stayed with the Micmac man Paul Francis and his wife. She lived there five months while her husband, Byron Jameson, was working as an ordinary axman in the camps, through a winter and spring.

In local legend the wife of Paul Francis was said to have the gift of prophecy when inspired by drink, and when Mary Jameson insisted her fortune be read with a pack of playing cards, she was told that her first-born would be a powerful man and have much respect – but his brother would be even greater, yet destroy the legacy by rashness, and the Jameson dynasty not go beyond that second boy.

Mrs. Francis warned that the prophecy would not be heeded, and therefore happen. It would happen in a senseless way, but of such a route as to look ordinary. Therefore the reading became instead of fun or games a very solemn reading that dark spring night, long ago, as the Francis woman sat in her chair rocking from one side to the other, and looking at the cards through half-closed eyelids.

“Then there is a choice,” Mary Jameson said, still trying to make light of its weight.

“If wrong action is avoided – but be careful to know what wrong action is.”

“In work?”

“In life,” said Mrs. Francis, picking the cards up and placing them away in a motion that attested to her qualifications.

Mary Jameson had the boy christened Will, and had Paul and Joanna Francis as his godparents. During the baptism, the sun which had not shone all day began to do so, through the stained glass. Mary decided she would keep this prophecy to herself. But she told her husband, who as the youngster grew became more affluent, and spoiled solemnity by speaking of the prophecy as a joke.

Soon the prophecy was known by others, and over time translated in a variety of ways.

It was true Mary forgot about it until the second boy, Owen, was born, so sickly he almost died.

She forgot about it again, until her husband was killed in a simple, almost absurd accident on the Gum Creek Road, coming out to inspect his mill on a rain-soaked day in April.

Mary thinking that it was a strange way for her husband to be taken from her. She almost a grandmother’s age with two small boys. Worse, she had asked her husband to come out on that spring day–frightened that he would take to the drive and be injured, and he was killed by a fall on a road.

Mary and her brother Buckler took over the mill until Will came into his own, which was soon enough, and seemingly too soon for his competition.
***
It is a common misconception that people are as bright as their knowledge. Will Jameson was a boy far brighter than what he knew, which is an ordinary problem in a country like ours, partly in bondage to winter, where snow is a great blessing on the land. His father had started with nothing but a crippled roan horse – and Will now had camps and horses and men, and a sawmill he had to take care of.

He left school because of his father’s death, and said leaving school was the least thing he ever regretted.

“Holding him is like holding a current itself,” Old Estabrook said of the young man.

Yet his mother, Mary, warned him, he had his faults, could be cruel or uncaring, and laughed at his mother’s sentiment and superstition. These traits came gradually. That is, he believed, because it was what society believed, what his father had believed, that a stiff presence at church service was what constituted good behavior, and jokes were meant to be manly and told in private. He thought, even at seventeen, of children as a woman’s responsibility and a man’s ignorance of the offspring showed a healthy character

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