In Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo, what does Kenan learn about himself? 

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo, Kenan learns a great deal about himself—as does the reader—as he makes his trip some distance away to the brewery to fill bottles (his family's and his neighbor's) with fresh water.

On this weekly journey, Kenan has a lot of time to reflect upon his life and how it has so drastically changed with the war. The loss of the things of the past (such as running water and electric) hit him and his family hard. He has learned to appreciate things they once had, and any reprieve is a source of great joy for him and his family. For example, when the electric comes on temporarily, he notes that for a short while, the family will not be able to contain their pleasure:

The bulb in the ceiling surges to life…faces will be tired from smiling.

The life he and his family now live is, he comes to realize, barely living at all. As he walks along to get the water, shelling begins there at the brewery. He realizes that he is a coward, for he is frozen in place while others move to help those who have been hurt or carry away those who have been killed. He does not run away as others do, but he also does not act for the benefit of those around him.

His trip is frightening and arduous. Kenan comes to resent getting water for his neighbor Mrs. Ristovski, who lives alone with no one to help her. (He is especially aggravated because she is not a very nice person.) In fact, at one point he leaves her bottles hidden because they are hard to carry and he is angry about his situation, deciding not to help the woman.

On the way home, Kenan (and many others) hear the cellist playing—which he has decided to do once a day for twenty-two days—in memory of the twenty-two people killed in the market place earlier in the story. Kenan is touched by the music, as are those near him:

[Kenan] stares at the cellist, and feels himself relax as the music seeps into him. He watches as the cellist's hair smoothes itself out, his beard disappears. A dirty tuxedo becomes clean, shoes polished bright as mirrors. Kenan hasn't heard the cellist's tune before, but he knows it anyway, its notes familiar and full of pride, a young boy in a new coat holding his father's hand as he walks down a winter street.

This experience brings back memories to Kenan of days far in the past. In his mind's eye, he does not see the disheveled appearance of the musician: not his clothing or his hair or his beard. It is a hope within him that takes root and springs up to fill him. It is this theme of hope that runs throughout the novel, that one day peace will return and life will cease to be so very difficult.

In hearing the cellist, Kenan is transformed. He stops to watch those around him who have also heard the music of the cellist; some bring flowers to the spot where he played—the spot where so many had died while trying to buy bread. He notices that in others, as with himself, some are hardly alive anymore. He thinks: be a ghost while you're still alive is the worst thing he can imagine.

While Kenan has discovered that he is fearful—afraid of dying—he also discovers a hope hidden in his heart long buried. He is now convinced that he must not just exist, but be truly alive. He must stop acting like a ghost. This resolve gives him courage to choose to live more fully, despite the circumstances of the present moment. And with this change, he returns to get Mrs. Ristovski's water bottles, encouraged with his new-found strength—his renewed hope—to see to the needs of others, even his neighbor who is so difficult to deal with sometimes.

Read the study guide:
The Cellist of Sarajevo

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