In the City
- Maggie Helwig (Author)
Girls Fall Down. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Steven Galloway (Author)
The Cellist of Sarajevo. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
In the late seventies, Paul Weller sang, "In the city there's a thousand men in uniforms / And I've heard they now have the right to kill a man." While the cities in both Maggie Helwig's and Steven Galloway's novels are far removed from the London that inspired Weller's punk anthem, all three explore the relationship between a city under siege and its inhabitants. In each novel, it is through the relationship between the main characters and their city that the author explores the central theme: the effect of a besieged urban environment on the human spirit. Both novels present a bleak portrait of a city; however, Galloway suggests a hopeful resolution for Sarajevo's citizens, while Helwig's citizens of Toronto continue unaffected.
In The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway has created an intimate portrait of three people living in war torn Sarajevo. Each of the characters takes a different approach to dealing with and surviving the conflict. Arrow has become a sniper, defending the city from the "men in the hills." Kenan is a father who struggles to ensure his family's survival, making regular, potentially fatal, trips to collect fresh water. Dragan, whose wife and son left before the conflict began, also risks the streets of the city in search of food to feed his sister and her family. In each case, the character has made choices about to how to survive the siege of Sarajevo, and through these choices, Galloway explores how the human spirit responds to conflict.
Galloway has written an exceptional novel that explores the lives of these three people who refuse to sacrifice their humanity despite the inhumanity that surrounds them. In exploring this thematic terrain, he adopts a mytho-poetic style that elevates the characters' struggles beyond the mundane. In all of their struggles, the characters ask the same questions. Will Sarajevo return to its former glory? Is the city worth saving? Galloway offers potential answers through the one thing that, albeit loosely, ties the characters together: the cellist and his daily vigil.
The cellist of the title is inspired by Vedran Smailovi , who played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor for twenty-two days at the site where a bomb killed twenty-two people waiting for bread. Throughout the novel, Galloway's cellist is a topic of conversation for all of the characters. However, he affects Arrow the most, for she is assigned the task of ensuring that he is kept alive to complete his memorial service. Despite the horrors of the conflict, the cellist's music lifts all of the characters out of their difficult situations and transports them back to a time when Sarajevo was a vibrant city, full of life. The music offers the possibility that all is not lost; there is hope that the conflict will end and that the city will be rebuilt by its people.
While Galloway's Sarajevo is trapped in an armed conflict, Helwig's Toronto is gripped by paranoia and fear. Toronto has often been described as a cold city, and Helwig uses this stereotype as a leaping-off point in her novel. Her main character, Alex, is a photographer at a Toronto hospital. Through his job, which requires him to photograph patients' ailments and surgeries, he has become desensitized to and detached from the suffering in the city. Even when he is faced with "the first girl who fell," he passively offers help but does not get involved. His detachment is also highlighted through his relationships with Suzanne, a former lover from university, and his camera. Through the course of the novel, the reader learns that Alex destroys all of his relationships intentionally, preferring to live an isolated existence. When it appears that he is about to break this trend with Suzanne, he goes out of his way to sabotage it, keeping her at a distance.
Similarly, Alex keeps all of the city at a distance through his camera lens. However, when he decides to look for Suzanne's brother, Alex has to engage with the city. Through his enquiries, he stops and talks with the man on his corner who asks for spare change because he is being "held by terrorists." Not only does this man provide him with the information to find Suzanne's brother, who is homeless, but he also forces Alex into acknowledging an aspect of the city that he previously ignored. Instead of going on his regular trek to photograph the city's changing landscape, he goes to the church's drop-in centre to photograph and talk with the people on the city's margins.
While the focus is on Alex, several other narrative threads are woven through the novel. Every time another person "falls" from supposed poison, the reader experiences the city's cold and detached reaction. More people are concerned with the delay to the subway than the cause of it. Helwig vividly captures the sense of paranoia in and the detachment of the city in the sequences about the burn victim, who is assaulted by a group of drunken young men because he looks as if he could be the supposed "poisoner." The burn victim is not named, and the young men are never caught. In the end, a senseless act destroys the man's life, and the city continues unaffected.
While the two novels employ different styles and use different cities, both explore the complex relationship between a besieged urban environment and its inhabitants. Galloway elevates the struggles of his characters to express a view that the conflict can be overcome through art and human contact. In contrast, Helwig's characters overcome the paranoia and fear gripping the city by trying to ignore it. In the end, the books serve as excellent companion pieces exploring how to survive and what it means to be human in the urban environment.
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MLA: Doran, Greg , Doran, Greg , Galloway, Steven, and Helwig, Maggie. In the City. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #200 (Spring 2009), Strategic Nationalisms. (pg. 152 - 154)
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