Friday, February 04, 2011

A book to read when you think your life is hard.

Last Friday my dryer died.  Right in the middle of a load.   The seminarian is pretty handy but he couldn't fix it.  He found the instruction manual and did all the trouble-shooting stuff but nothing worked.  He said that it seemed the dryer, which came with the house we moved into 4 years ago, must be about 20 years old.  So it was dead.

I was without a dryer for 4 days.  Can you imagine?  Dirty laundry piling up. The prospect of going to the laundromat.  Ugh!  What a terrible thing to happen.

During those four days that I wasn't doing laundry, I had a little extra time for reading.  I started a new novel, and I read about a man preparing to venture into the streets of Sarajevo during the siege to find water for his family:
He sits at the table and inspects each of the six plastic containers he'll take with him.  He checks for any obvious cracks that may have developed since they were last emptied, makes sure each one has the correct lid.  He has two backup containers he can substitute if he finds any faults.  Deciding how much water you can carry has become something of an art in this city.  Carry too little and you'll have to repeat the task more often. Each time you expose yourself to the dangers of the streets you run the risk of injury or death.  But carry too much and you lose the ability to run, duck, dive, anything it takes to get out of danger's way. 
During his trek to get the water, he faces the possibility of being cut down by a sniper's bullet or killed in a mortar attack.  The trip to get water takes hours.   And he has to do it every few days.

We decided to take a chance on Craigslist - something we'd never done before - and found a dryer the next morning.  It was in place and humming away a mere 4 days after the old dryer died.

Wednesday was piano lesson day.  Our teacher lives just over the city line in Philadelphia.  It's not the suburbs anymore, and the streets were a mess.  She has only street parking and there was a lot of snow on the ground.  People shovel out their own parking spaces and mark them with chairs or construction cones to keep interlopers away.  The streets are narrow because of all the snow piled up.  The plows push it to the sides of the road, but they don't remove it.  I couldn't park, so I had to let Eleanor out of the car in front of the teacher's apartment and watch her stumble through the snow-covered walk up to the door, ring the bell, and wait for the teacher to let her in, all while hoping no one would need to get past me on the street.  Then I went to find a place to park till her lesson was over.

While I waited for her in the Walmart parking lot, I read some more.
The trains don't run anymore. The streets are full of debris, boxcars and concrete piled at intersections in an attempt to foil the snipers on the hills.  To go outside is to accept the possibility that you will be killed.
Sometimes our lives are inconvenient and we mistakenly think they are hard.  That's one of the reasons I read books like The Cellist of Sarajevo. They remind me that my life is so very easy, always.

There really was a cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailovic, and though the novel is named for him, he is a minor character, a focal point.  During the siege he saw 22 of his neighbors killed by a mortar attack.  In response, he sat at that spot each day for 22 days and played his cello. (You can read about his unhappiness with the book and his role in it here.)

The story - three separate stories, really - follow three other people throughout a day, or several days.  The chapters alternate, each telling a part of the story of one person.  It is not perfectly linear in the telling, but it won't matter once you start reading the book. 

Kenan is the family man who struggles to get water.  Dragan is alone; his family left the city but he has work at a bakery so he stayed behind.  Arrow is a young woman, a soldier and sniper who targets the "men in the hills," the men who make it dangerous to cross a street.  There are other characters whose lives we glimpse as they go about their day.  

It is a beautifully written book, and hard to set aside.  I found myself slipping away from my daily tasks to read one more chapter.  It's a difficult book, though, because it doesn't flinch from the violence.  People die while crossing a street, cut down by snipers.  People don't behave the way we think they should.  The way we are sure we would behave in similar circumstances.   But it will also show you that people can retain their humanity even under the worst conditions imaginable.

Read this when you feel that your life is hard.

Linking up with Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books.


wayside wanderer said...

Great review! Love the imagery you use.

IntrovertedJen said...

Beautiful review. I've added this book to my list.