Sunday, October 18, 2015


It’s only when I got to the last third of Steven Galloway’s novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, that I realized the parallelism between that story and the Canadian election, 2015.

The novel is based on actual events that occurred during the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990’s.  On May 27, 1990, at 4 :00 p.m., a rain of mortar shells from the hills above Sarajevo killed twenty-two people who had lined up behind a market to buy bread.  For the next twenty-two days, Vedran Smailović, a local cellist of note, played Albinoni’s Adagio in C Minor on the very spot, in hommage to the dead.  The odds were that he, too, would be killed.  After all, the snipers that lurked in the hills and in the shelled buildings picked people off every day.  But he lived.

The bodies of the dead and injured, though, were gone—the factions made sure of that—and the bombed out, disintegrating infrastructure was not enough to incite action.  As a result, the perpetrators of the war continued without reprisal. Galloway says:

When people die, they’re removed, taken to hospitals and graveyards, and before the bodies are  healed or cold the spot where they were shattered is unrecognizable as a place where anything out of the ordinary happened.  That is why the men on the hills are able to kill with impunity.  If there were bodies in the streets, rotting where they fell,
. .  .  then maybe the men would be forced to stop, maybe they would want to stop (164). 

The cellist, then, is a visible symbol of the senseless destruction.  Every day, his act reminds his fellow citizens that people have died.  The other characters in the novel see in his courageous act the resolve of one person not to live in fear, but rather to make a statement to the snipers and the forces all around intent on destruction.  They may kill him, but they cannot control him.

As a result, characters in the novel initiate actions that make a statement of hope in the future of their city, that it can once again be what it was before the war.  They realize that if their city is to die, it won’t be the attackers in the hills that will have killed it.  “If this city is to die, . . .” the author says, “it will be because of the people in the valley.  When they’re content to live with death, to become what the men on the hills want them to be, then Sarajevo will die.”

Our own country has also been eviscerated.   Information necessary for future planning has been systematically destroyed (Macleans, Vanishing Canada, September 18, 2015).  Indeed, in a passage that echoes the Cellist quotation, the article continues: “Stories about government data and historical records being deleted, burned—even tossed into Dumpsters—have become so common in recent years that many Canadians may feel inured to them.” Scientists are muzzled. Studies from the 1970’s on the potential impact of tar sands development have disappeared. The number of protected wilderness areas dwindles. Our public broadcaster gasps for air. Parks Canada funding has eroded. Canadians are pitted against each other on the basis of race. We are being manipulated to be fearful. Fear will not protect us; fear will destroy us in the end.

That’s why we have to vote tomorrow. And that’s why we have to vote for change. No party that purchases a front page ad in the bright yellow of Elections Canada, without a drop of representative ink on the page, to confuse people while that party reminds them to be afraid, deserves to govern.  No party that can create a tip line to encourage citizens to rat on each other for “barbaric cultural practices ” deserves to govern.  This is not Canada.

The lesson Galloway explores in his novel is that powerful forces that would make us afraid cannot control us.  Ultimately, our actions speak for us, as did those of the cellist and the characters his courage influenced.  Although the circumstances are much safer for us individually than they were for the cellist, the consequences of our actions are no less serious.  We are in danger of losing the Canada we have known.  We must neutralize tactics of manipulation and fear.

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