Steven Galloway’s novel The Cellist of Sarajevo is chosen for One Book, One Calgary

Throughout November, the Calgary Public Library will be hosting its second One Book, One Calgary event, in which they’re encouraging all Calgarians to read the 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo, written by Steven Galloway. The event already has more than 1,000 confirmed readers on the One Book, One Calgary website.

 The novel follows three fictional characters that are each affected by the cellist after an explosion during the Siege of Sarajevo in 1992. The real-life cellist, Vedran Smajlović, honored the deaths of 22 bystanders by playing the same song, at the same time, at the same location of the bombing for 22 days.

“What appealed to me initially about [the cellist] was the sheer vividness of the image of a man sitting in a tuxedo playing a cello — which is a very high-end, beautiful image — surrounded by bricks that are blown up, and broken windows and dilapidated buildings,” Galloway said.

“I first saw that image in a New Yorks Times Magazine in 1992, and it stuck in my head for the better part of 10 years,” he continued. “What then captivated me about it was that I’m from Kamloops, B.C. — I’m not Serbian, or Bosnian, and have no geographical connection to the place, and yet that image stayed in my mind for a decade.”

Carolyn Reicher, customer service manager of adult programming for the Calgary Public Library, is one of the main organizers for the event.Carolyn Reicher reading The Cellist of Sarajevo for One Book, One Calgary

Photo by: Kyle Napier

“This year, the process moves beyond the local focus into something more global, and the book that we’ve chosen deals with themes that have resonance across the globe,” Reicher explained.

Accessibility across age and culture

While the book may seem to have strong adult themes of war and conflict, the roots of the story lay within a sense of community, and both Galloway and Reicher say that The Cellist of Sarajevo is accessible for both youth and new Calgarians.

Galloway, who also teaches for the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program, said, “It helps that the book is written in pretty straight-forward, clean language, so they don’t have that obstacle of language they don’t know.”

He is also familiar with how youth may interpret the story after having done several school presentations on the novel.

“I’ve been surprised with the young adult audiences’ ability to immediately grasp the situations in this book. The younger people almost read it as metaphor instead of literally, because to them Sarajevo might as well be an imaginary place,” Galloway said.

Reicher added, “For new Canadians, who maybe have English as a second language, it’s something that they would more easily be able to access than some novels.”

This book was also chosen for its universal themes. Galloway said, “I can find you a ‘cellist of Sarajevo’ type figure for every conflict in history.”

Non-profit community participation

The event combines efforts with 17 different community partners across the city, including Vibrant Communities Calgary, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Calgary Board of Education, as well as support from Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Alexa Briggs, associate director of strategy and research at Vibrant Communities Calgary, said she was approached by One Book, One Calgary to “help contribute to community dialogue from the perspective of Calgarians living in poverty, and what it is like to live under siege, or in poverty, daily.”

Other groups have approached One Book, One Calgary, said Reicher, such as book clubs “adopting the book as their book-of-the-month.”

While the author doesn’t expect everybody to enjoy the novel, he does hope that conversation around social issues will stem from the reading.

“That discussion is more valuable than that person’s opinion of a book. Who cares if you like a book or not? That’s fleeting,” he said.

“What I would find rewarding to see happen is if people read the book that has the three characters in it, and ask themselves, ‘What would I have done in that situation?’”

Programs and Events

The launch of One Book, One Calgary is Nov. 4, and there will be 39 different events throughout the rest of the month, with at least one event at every Calgary Public Library location.

The programs, geared for kids, teens, and adults, fall into four main categories: arts and cultures; reading and writing; community conversations; history and travel.

Reicher said, “We not only want to offer programs that are geographically diverse throughout the city and various communities, but we want to engage a younger audience as well.”

Many of the events, such as “My Story of Survival,” “Hardship and Hope: Community Conversations,” and “Pechakucha,” require strong audience participation.

“When you bring people together, you hear stories you wouldn’t otherwise necessarily hear. The library is a place where we celebrate storytelling and sharing of individual Calgarian stories, as well as the community story,” said Reicher.

For further information on the event, such as event dates and locations, please visit the One Book, One Calgary website.

knapier@cjournal.ca