There are a number of themes that can be identified in Steven Galloway's 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo. The fragility of civilization, the ease with which society can be torn apart by the political machinations of the most morally abhorrent of people, as was the case with the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. On this point, Galloway himself stated the following with respect to his novel's relevance and the two main themes he presented:
"One is to understand what happens to the world and us as individuals when we abdicate responsibility for who we hate."
The conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina was the direct result of the cynical manipulation of popular sentiments by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian Serbian leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, and Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman, all of whom used xenophobic propaganda to dehumanize the region's Muslim population so that they could profit from its destruction. Just as Hitler appealed to the basest instincts of a German people to advance his political agenda, so did these politicians exploit ignorance and latent xenophobic tendencies to incite the bloodiest conflict Europe had witnessed since World War II. This is to what Galloway was referring in the above quote.
Galloway ascribes a second major theme to The Cellist of Sarajevo that perhaps resounds as a more poignant given his story's narrative, that of the enduring and vital importance of the arts. As he stated in an interview, the link to which is provided below, that second theme is “a bit of a plea for a rethink of the role of the arts and the consumption of the arts in contemporary society. . . .” One can extrapolate from Galloway's comment that the main idea of his novel is the importance of the arts -- in this case, music -- to the preservation of civilization. The cellist who serves as the principal focal point of his novel, even while the narrative emphasizes the lives of others, such as the female sniper who protects him, Arrow, represents the hope that was best articulated by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln more than a century before: "The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angles of our nature." This, then, is the main idea of Galloway's book -- that the cellist and his music represent the final element of humanity in a world gone mad, and that that element must be protected at all costs.