Authors: Steven Galloway
Tags: #Historical, #Adult, #Contemporary, #Military
You may not be interested in war,
but war is interested in you.
The Sarajevo in this novel is only one small part of the
real city and its people, as imagined by the author.
This is above all else a work of fiction.
T 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.
HE HAS BEEN WAITING FOR A LONG
time. Through the scope of her rifle she can see three soldiers standing beside a low wall on a hill above Sarajevo. One looks at the city as though he’s remembering something. One holds out a lighter so another can light a cigarette. It’s obvious they have no idea they’re in her sights. Perhaps, she thinks, they believe they’re too far from the front line. They’re wrong. Perhaps they think no one could thread a bullet between the buildings that separate them from her. Again, they’re wrong. She can kill any one of them, and maybe even two of them, whenever she chooses. And soon she’ll make her choice.
The soldiers Arrow is watching have good reason to think they’re safe. Were almost anyone else hunting them, they would be. They’re almost a kilometre away, and the rifle she uses, the kind nearly all the defenders use, has a practical range of eight hundred metres. Beyond that, the chances of hitting a target are remote. This isn’t the case for Arrow. She can make a bullet do things that others can’t.
For most people, long-distance shooting is a question of the correct combination of observation and mathematics. Figure out the wind’s speed and direction, and the target’s distance. Measurements are calculated and factored into equations taking into account the velocity of the bullet, the drop over time, the magnification of the scope. It’s no different from throwing a ball. A ball isn’t thrown at a target, it’s thrown in an arc calculated to intersect with a target. Arrow doesn’t take measurements, she doesn’t calculate formulas. She simply sends the bullet where she knows it needs to go. She has trouble understanding why other snipers can’t do this.
She’s hidden among the detritus of a burned-out office tower, a few metres back from a window with a view of the city’s southern hills. Anyone looking would have a difficult if not impossible time spotting a slight young woman with shoulder-length black hair concealed within the smoking wreckage of workaday life. She lies with her stomach pressed to the floor, her legs
partially covered by an old newspaper. Her eyes, large, blue and bright, are the only sign of life.
Arrow believes she’s different from the snipers on the hills. She shoots only soldiers. They shoot unarmed men, women, children. When they kill a person, they seek a result that is far greater than the elimination of that individual. They are trying to kill the city. Every death chips away at the Sarajevo of Arrow’s youth with as much certainty as any mortar shell battering a building. Those left are robbed of not only a fellow citizen but the memory of what it was to be alive in a time before men on the hills shot at you while you tried to cross the street.
Ten years ago, when she was eighteen and was not called Arrow, she borrowed her father’s car and drove to the countryside to visit friends. It was a bright, clear day, and the car felt alive to her, as though the way she and the car moved together was a sort of destiny, and everything was happening exactly as it ought to. As she rounded a corner one of her favourite songs came on the radio, and sunlight filtered through the trees the way it does with lace curtains, reminding her of her grandmother, and tears began to slide down her cheeks. Not for her grandmother, who was then still very much among the living, but because she felt an enveloping happiness to be alive, a joy made stronger by the certainty that someday it would all come to an
end. It overwhelmed her, made her pull the car to the side of the road. Afterwards she felt a little foolish, and never spoke to anyone about it.
Now, however, she knows she wasn’t being foolish. She realizes that for no particular reason she stumbled into the core of what it is to be human. It’s a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous, and that it won’t last forever.
So when Arrow pulls the trigger and ends the life of one of the soldiers in her sights, she’ll do so not because she wants him dead, although she can’t deny that she does, but because the soldiers have robbed her and almost everyone else in the city of this gift. That life will end has become so self-evident it’s lost all meaning. But worse, for Arrow, is the damage done to the distance between what she knows and what she believes. For although she knows her tears that day were not the ridiculous sentimentality of a teenage girl, she doesn’t really believe it.
From the elevated fortress of Vraca, above the occupied neighbourhood of Grbavica, her targets bomb the city with assumed impunity. In the Second World War, Vraca was a place where the Nazis tortured and killed those who resisted them. The names of the dead are carved on the steps, but at the time few fighters used their real names. They took new names, names that said more about them than any boastful story told by
drunks in a bar, names that defied the governments who later tried to twist their deeds into propaganda. It’s said they took these new names so their families wouldn’t be in danger, so they could slip in and out of two lives. But Arrow believes they took these names so they could separate themselves from what they had to do, so the person who fought and killed could someday be put away. To hate people because they hated her first, and then to hate them because of what they’ve done to her, has created a desire to separate the part of her that will fight back, that will enjoy fighting back, from the part that never wanted to fight in the first place. Using her real name would make her no different from the men she kills. It would be a death greater than the end of her life.