The Cellist of Sarajevo

The recent capture of Radovan Karadzik reminded me of Vedran Smailovic. He was a cellist in the Sarajevo Orchestra; in 1992, when 22 people standing in line outside a bakery were killed by Karadzik’s thugs during the siege of Sarajevo, Smailovic took upon himself a commemorative service. Every day, when he could, for as long as he could, he played Albinoni’s Adagio #2 in g, in the ruins of the bakery. John Burns of the New York Times wrote a lovely and detailed story about him. [URLs at the bottom]

I remember it, among other reasons, because I was a classical DJ at the time. Every Saturday for about six weeks, as a tribute to his courage, I juggled the schedule to make room for the Albinoni.

When the news about Karadzik broke (be patient; I’m getting to the part about writers now), I looked online to see what had become of Smailovic. He’s been living – playing music occasionally, and composing – in Ireland. And he’s been getting angry. He believes he has been – in simplest terms – ripped off.

A Canadian novelist, Steven Galloway, has come out with a new book, The Cellist of Sarajevo, which has been pretty well received – glowing reviews, and he has a Hollywood contract for the movie.

Smailovic is getting nothing, except for an author’s note by Galloway that his actions “inspired this novel, but I have not based the character of the cellist on the real Smailovic.”

The Times has interviews with both men. Smailovic is definitely pissed off. Galloway says that he’s upset by Smailovic’s reaction, adding…

“I didn’t contact him while writing the book because the characters don’t have contact with the Cellist and so it doesn’t really matter to them what he does.”

“The problem is that Mr Smailovic took a cello on to a street in a war and that’s an extremely public act. I can’t ignore that as an artist. I really hoped when I sent him the book that he would feel it had added to the discussion that he started."

“I’m at a bit of a loss to know how to address it. I don’t think that I crossed any lines about writing fictional things about a living person. I got most of my stuff off the internet.”

Now, for the grand prize, including but not limited to incredible public acclaim and your name on the forum, explain – as a writer – whether you’d have done what Galloway did, and the way he did it.

Capture of Karadzik:

Burns feature:

Book review:

Times inteview (Smailovic and Galloway)

I have to side with the writer here. He found a news event and built a novel around it. He never interviewed the cellist, or borrowed papers from him, or fact-checked with him, so the cellist did not provide any research services, it would seem.

In my work as a journalist, I often encountered people who asked me if I were going to make money out of their lives and troubles. My answer was that I brought them attention, and that might lead to assistance or income, but I couldn’t pay them for their information. I could buy them a meal or take them to a ball game, to provide occasions for conversation, but that was it.

I suspect that the cellist wasn’t all that perturbed by the novel; it’s the film that raised his dream of profits. In fact, the writer isn’t going to make all that much $$ from either venture. Not when he adds up all the hours he put into writing the book or screenplay.

The “I can’t ignore that as an artist” is so glib and pretentious that I would almost side with Smailovic, just for that.

If I am interpreting him correctly, that appears to be code for: don’t blame me, the art made me do it, I had no choice. What a load of crap. You could use the same argument for shooting child porn, killing actors in horror flicks to make the movie effects look better, or creating lamp shades from human skin. The truth is, he did have a choice, and he could choose to ignore that, artist or otherwise, we do it all the time.

Having said that, I don’t think what he did is morally wrong. Once people perform an action, they do not have ownership over that action or that idea, and they cannot decide how it is reported, repeated, interpreted, and built upon (outside the obvious confines of copyright law). Writers take ideas from people, events and dialogue that they see and hear all the time. Most of the time it is untraceable and unidentifiable. Where it is taken from friends and family, they get annoyed with us and don’t talk to us. If it is about famous people, and it is slanderous, they sue.

If it is easily identifiable as the life-defining (and most likely proudest) actions of a famous cellist, they get extremely pissed off.

That’s the lay of the land.

If you want to be polite and respectful, you seek their blessing first, not because they have the power or right to stop you, but because it is polite and respectful to do so. And you would probably get a much better response than if you plow ahead, and worse, smugly and condescendingly send them a copy at the end to say “here’s what I did with your life, aren’t I so clever, and don’t you feel so honoured”. If, as Galloway says, he didn’t need Smailovic’s input because Smailovic “doesn’t matter to them [the characters]”, then why send him a copy of the book at all?

Smailovic is understandably annoyed, as many of us would be. Although I don’t think he owns the cellist story or has the right to say who tells it, that doesn’t mean Galloway doesn’t seem arrogant, insensitive, and opportunistic.

Seems I killed that thread.

Or maybe it just died a-borning.

But thanks for the reaction, Matt; you saw the situation almost exactly the way I did.

(Still, I thought it might have provoked another idea or two. Maybe I should have waited until after Karadzik appeared in court to answer the charges – the whole Sarajevo episode might have been rekindled in the media.)


More or less what Matt said.

It’s been claimed that Yuri Andropov, former head of the KGB and for a short time president of the USSR in the 80s, could have made a fortune, had he sued in the West for the libels against him in numerous Cold War thrillers.

In the UK recently, there’s been a spate of novels, plays and TV dramas in which Margaret Thatcher is a character, not one of which - I bet - was checked with her.

I’m writing something fictional at the moment in which at least one “real” person figures, but which I for very good reasons (well, they seem good to me 8) ) have no intention of checking with him/her.

So I have little problem with what Galloway did. If he’d done a cuttings-and-paste job on the cellist’s life without talking to him, I wouldn’t have had an ethical problem either; I’d have simply felt he’d been lazy. It happens to better-known folk quite frequently.

But I do have a problem with the excuse Galloway gave. On the evidence of the original quote, yes he was pretentious. But pretension does seem to be an occupational hazard, though to be truthful, writing is often as much about mischief as it is about making grand statements.

Digging through old threads (two years old, this relic is), I came upon this one and feel a little compelled to respond to it. I’ve been studying/reading the Balkans and especially the Bosnian War/Siege of Sarajevo for more than a decade and recently was granted some money to travel there.

[plants a dusty old soap box in the center of the square]

Galloway and his book are not well thought of in Sarajevo. Smailović, of course, no longer lives there, but numerous people who know him still do. The general consensus was that even though Galloway has spoken at length of his in-country research, most people figure he stayed at the Holiday Inn and ate at a couple of local restaurants and visited a museum or two. I’ve read sections of his book and he has done with the chronology of the Siege and geography of Sarajevo what Hollywood usually does with films from novels: subjects them to intense vivisection and by the end of the operation, pieces are familiar, but the entirety is something vastly different than what it once was.

That, and, in my opinion, Galloway’s writing is touchy-feely and what Steinbeck called hooptedoodle—“some pretty words” that “sing a little song with language… I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it.”

Of course, having written and published fiction about the Siege myself, I’ve been accused of professional envy. But I’m confident enough in my own research and writing—and been amply rewarded for it thus far in the States and the former Jugoslav countries—that I can stand to be accused of many things and keep going about my business of gaining perspective from folks on all sides of the situation and keep creating what I need to create.

And it certainly won’t be something parasitic to the city and people I have come to treasure.

Galloway was a little known writer until he used Smailović’s life and Sarajevo’s tragedy to bring his own name to the attention of New York Times critics. He may consider what he did was art, but as director Danis Tanović said to me (with tongue planted firmly in cheek), “If there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, there can be no art of any kind after Sarajevo.”

If anyone is interested in Sarajevan fiction of ethical and artistic quality, native Ahmet M. Rahmanovic (who now lives in the Chicago area) recently published a novel called Black Soul. It’s not comfortable to read, but it holds no pretensions about what it is.

[hops off the soap box and carries it off into the nether regions again]