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Existentialism and Its Plot Lines

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Zivazava, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “The Cellist of Sarajevo” by Stephen Galloway.

Screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who wrote several screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock is credited with the term “MacGuffin.” A MacGuffin is the device which drives the plot but is unimportant by itself to the movie or book.

The Maltese falcon in “The Maltese Falcon” is a MacGuffin. The cellist in “The Cellist of Sarajevo” is the MacGuffin. Galloway is not writing a story about the cellist. He is writing an existentialist novel. Galloway uses the other characters to examine human existence where war requires that the actors triage their lives.

Galloway creates three main characters, Kenan, Dragan and Arrow. Each has several chapters, named for the character featured, which leapfrog each other several times in sequence. Perhaps to emphasize the separate lives of each, they never meet, despite sharing the streets and the hazards of snipers and shelling.

In the middle of that killing, they all have to look for food and medicine and water. These everyday essential tasks expose them to snipers hoping to kill anyone on the street.

In one of the Kenan chapters, Galloway compares pigeons to people risking sniper fire. He writes that Kenan watches a man catching and killing pigeons for food. “Sometimes they try to fly, sometimes they don’t,” the man tells Kenan. “I don’t know what makes the difference,” he adds, then says that he only takes what he needs for the people in his apartment, hoping the pigeons will stay around for his next foray.

Kenan “can’t help feeling a sort of kinship with the pigeon.” As with the pigeon hunter, Kenan “thinks it’s possible that the men on the hills are killing them slowly, a half-dozen at a time, so there will always be a few more to kill the next day.”

Later Galloways tells us that Arrow almost loses sight of who she was but still “knows who she wants to be.” To do that, Arrow thinks, the only way is to return to her former self. There is, of course, a cost to that.

Dragan runs into a younger friend of his wife Raza on the street. Dragan at first tries to avoid the friend, Emina. They talk a bit. Ask about each other’s families. That his wife, Raza, and their son left on one of the last buses out of Sarajevo. Their apartment was one of the first shelled. And so, this is their “normal” life under seige now

Emina is on her way to deliver medicine to someone who needs a blood thinner, the last of a prescription from her mother who died five years previously. People still need medicine. Some medicine is no longer available because of the war. Even out of date medicines could be useful. Radio Sarajevo put together medical swaps. The radio would read a list of daily medicine needs. Those who could, help contribute their medicines.

When Dragan decides to cross the street. Emina says she will follow. Almost across, he hears the bullet just after he feels the air pressure as the bullet misses. This time, this time, they make it across without being hit.

They continue a conversation which resembles any conversation before the siege, all but ignoring the risk.

Galloway’s novel is almost textbook existential novel, featuring crisis and dread in an absurd world which nonetheless is filled with courage, virtue and authenticity, often through the most ordinary of actions.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club

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