Cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailovic, is wounded by words
A musician who risked his life playing a lament for 22 massacre victims is incensed by a novel capitalising on his act
For 16 years Vedran Smailovic has been feted as the Cellist of Sarajevo, a musician who defied the city’s snipers by playing for 22 successive days in the rubble of an explosion that claimed the lives of 22 of his fellow Bosnians as they queued to buy bread.
Dressed in evening tails and perching on a fire-scorched chair, the photographs of his grieving face became a searing global image that made artists such as David Bowie, U2, Pavarotti and Sir Paul McCartney clamour to perform with him.
But the fame that accompanied his artistic protest was not welcome. After the conflict he retreated into homely obscurity, finding an attic flat overlooking Carlingford Lough on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, in the quiet backwater of Warrenpoint. Here he spends his days composing music and playing chess.
Smailovic was content with his lot – until he discovered that a novel called The Cellist of Sarajevo was in the bookshops. Written by Steven Galloway, a 32-year-old Canadian who teaches creative writing in Vancouver, it has been hailed as a masterpiece.
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Smailovic is so angry that he is threatening to stage another protest and burn his famous cello in the spot where he played Albinoni’s Adagio during those 22 days of mourning and protest in 1992. The publisher, Random House, describes the novel as telling “the story of three people trying to survive in a city rife with the extreme fear of desperate times, and of the sorrowing cellist who plays undaunted in their midst”.
One of the three characters is a female sniper “who is asked to protect the cellist from a hidden shooter who is out to kill him as he plays his memorial”.The Cellist of Sarajevois on its way to becoming an international bestseller and the film rights have been sold to Hollywood. Smailovic first heard about it through a Canadian artist friend with whom he collaborated on a children’s fable about his musical protest.
“It was like the explosion of an atomic bomb, emotions of anger and pain,” he told The Times. “How is this possible? They steal my name and identity.
“Nobody can take the rights to that from me. It’s quite clear that it is me in the book.”
Last week, while performing at a memorial concert for British soldiers killed in Bosnia, he was advised to fight back. “Friends force me to take legal action. I expect damages for what they have done, an apology and compensation.”
In an author’s note in the novel Galloway says that Smailovic’s actions “inspired this novel, but I have not based the character of the cellist on the real Smailovic”.
A copy of the novel arrived in the post asThe Timesinterviewed the musician, with a dedication: “For Vedran, with great admiration. I hope I have done your actions good service. From a fellow artist. Steven Galloway.”
But that did nothing to soothe Smailovic’s anger.
“I am still in shock. I am not naive. I am not interested in his bloody fiction, I am interested in reality. They are using my picture and advertising their product with my name. I am not interested at all. I never blessed this project.
“I am not hiding here, but for ten years I have not wanted to go out. I don’t want to be involved any more as a peacemaker or a public person. I did what I did and that was that, mission accomplished. I have a right to my privacy. I will do the occasional event for charity on a voluntary basis but I don’t want to go public again and now because of this book I am forced to.” Still tormented by his memories of the siege of Sarajevo, Smailovic rails against the misrepresentations of his protest that refuse to go away. “I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day.
“They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at ten in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine.
“I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello. But if I do not get justice now I will burn it back in Sarajevo.”
He is returning to the city next month where he will be reunited with the folk singer Joan Baez and take part in an American documentary about her life. Ms Baez was inspired to visit him in Sarajevo during the height of the fighting, an act of solidarity that he considers to have been braver than his own actions.
Galloway, contacted by The Times, confessed that he was “upset” by Smailovic’s reaction but insisted that he felt he had done nothing wrong nor owed the real Cellist of Sarajevo any compensation. “I’ve been an admirer of his for some time. But I’m not sure entirely about in what way he feels that what I’ve done with his identity is different from the other works of art which have been inspired by him.
“I don’t use his name, I call my character the Cellist and he’s really only a character in the first five pages. It’s not really about him, it’s about the other characters and their reactions to what he does.
“I understand where he’s coming from but I just wish that he’d read it. 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.”
But it is not as if Galloway was not warned of Smailovic’s feelings about the book. Deryk Houston, a multimedia artist who lives near the author in British Columbia, told The Times that he had told Galloway that he should have been open with the cellist from the beginning of the project.
“I feel that he should have been contacted at the early stages of this excellent book by Mr Galloway. Even if there is no legal obligation, I felt that the right thing to have done would have been for him to offer Vedran some sort of financial arrangement.
“I told him that I wouldn’t enjoy cashing any royalty cheques if Vedran was not compensated, because he created the Cellist of Sarajevo.” Mr Houston described the author as “a very nice young man” but added: “It’s my feeling that he dropped the ball on this one due to his youth, or perhaps he was given poor advice by those around him. I don’t know.
“I wrote Vedran about it because I would rather he heard about it through friends than seeing it in a book store one day. We offered to accompany Mr Galloway to Northern Ireland and introduce him to Vedran if it would help. He thought about that idea but did not take us up on the offer.”
However, Galloway said that he did not believe that the painter’s suggestion of paying Smailovic made any sense.
“If I had, I suppose, sat down with him and taken up his time . . . but I don’t see how fiction writers can start paying their sources of inspiration. I would become a pariah of the literary world if I were to do that.
“I don’t even know if I owe him anything on a fiscal level. What about the 25 people I interviewed whose stories are in the book? Should I pay them too? How do you work this out?”
As Vedran Smailovic nurses his anger, troubled by the resurrected memories of a time of suffering and brooding over the money flowing into a young Canadian author’s bank account, Galloway is facing his own dilemma.
“I never thought I would be making an enemy of Vedran Smailovic. I thought he just might not like the book.”