It is the
year 2050. In a large Eastern European city -- one that has survived
the vicissitudes of more than a thousand years of human activity -- in an open
square in the city center -- there is a rather odd civic monument. A
Not a soldier or politician.
Not a general on a horse or a king on a throne.
Instead, the figure of a somewhat common man, sitting in a chair.
Playing his cello.
Around the pedestal on which the statue sits, there are bouquets of flowers.
If you count, you will always find twenty-two flowers in each bunch.
The cellist is a national hero.
If you ask
to hear the story of this statue, you will be told of a time of civil water in
this city. Demagogues lit bonfires of hatred between citizens who belonged
to different religions and ethnic groups. Everyone became an enemy of
someone else. None was exempt or safe. Men, women, children, babies,
grandparent -- old and young -- strong and weak -- partisan and innocent -- all,
all were victims in the end. Many were maimed. Many were
killed. Those who did not die lived like animals in the ruins of the city.
Except one man. A musician. A cellist. He came to a certain
street corner every day. Dressed in formal black evening clothes, sitting
in a fire-charred chair, he played his cello. Knowing he might be shot or
beat, still he played. Day after day he came. To play the most
beautiful music he knew.
Day after day after day. For twenty-two days.
His music was stronger than hate. His courage, stronger than fear.
And in time other musicians were captured by his spirit, and they took their
places in the street beside him. These acts of courage were
contagious. Anyone who could play an instrument or sing found a place at a
street intersection somewhere in this city and made music.
In time the fighting stopped.
The music and the city and the people lived on.
fable. A lovely story. Something adults might make up to inspire
children. A tale of the kind found in tourist guidebooks explaining and
embellishing the myths behind civic statuary. A place to have your picture
Is there any truth in such a parable other than the implied acknowledgment of
the sentimentality of mythmaking? The real world does not work this
way. We all know that. Cellists seldom become civic heroes -- music
doesn't affect wars.
Smailovic does not agree.
In The New York Times Magazine, July 1992, his photograph appeared.
Middle-aged, longish hair, great bushy mustache. He is dressed in formal
evening clothes. Sitting in a cafe chair in the middle of a street.
In front of a bakery where mortar fire struck a breadline in late May, killing
twenty-two people. He is playing his cello. As a member of the
Sarajevo Opera Orchestra, there is little he can do about hate and war -- it has
been going on in Sarajevo for centuries. Even so, every day for twenty-two
days he has braved sniper and artillery fire to play Albinoni's profoundly
moving Adagio in C Minor.
I wonder if he chose this piece of music knowing it was constructed from a
manuscript fragment found in the ruins of Dresden after the Second World
War? The music survived the firebombing. Perhaps that is why he
played it there in the scarred street in Sarajevo, where people died waiting in
line for bread. Something must triumph over horror.
Is this man crazy? Maybe. Is his gesture futile? Yes, in a
conventional sense, yes, of course. But what can a cellist do? What
madness to go out alone in the streets and address the world with a wooden box
and a hair-strung bow. What can a cellist do?
All he knows how to do. Speaking softly with his cello, one note at a
time, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, calling out the rats that infest the human
Smailovic is a real person.
What he did is true.
Neither the breadline nor the mortar shell nor the music is fiction.
For all the fairy tales, these acts do take place in the world in which
Sometimes history knocks at the most ordinary door to see if anyone is at
home. Sometimes someone is.
everyone in Sarajevo knows now what a cellist can do -- for the place where
Vedran played has become an informal shrine, a place of honor. Croats,
Serbs, Muslims, Christians alike -- they all know his name and face.
They place flowers where he played. Commemorating the hope that must never
die -- that someday, somehow, the bet of humanity shall overcome the worst, not
through unexpected miracles but through the expected acts of the many.
Sarajevo is not the only place where Vedran Smailovic is known. An artist
in Seattle, Washington, saw his picture and read his story. Her name is
Beliz Brother. Real person -- real name. What could an artist do?
She organized twenty-two cellists to play in twenty-two public places in Seattle
for twenty-two days, and on the final day, all twenty-two played together in one
place in front of a store window displaying burned-out bread pans, twenty-two
loaves of bread, and twenty-two roses.
People came. Newspaper reporters and television cameras were there.
The story and the pictures were fed into the news networks of the world.
And passed back to Vedran Smailovic that he might know his music had been heard
and passed on. Others have begun to play in many cities. In
Washington, D.C., twenty-two cellists played the day our new president was sworn
into office. Who knows who might hear? Who knows what might happen?
people saw Vedran's story in The New York Times. Millions have seen
and heard the continuing story picked up by the media.
Now you, too, know.
Tell it to someone. This is urgent news. Keep it alive in the world.
As for the end of the story, who among us shall insist the rest of the story
cannot come true? Who shall say the monument in the park in Sarajevo will
never come to pass? The cynic who lives in a dark hole in my most secret
mind says one cellist cannot stop a war, and music can ultimately be only a
dirge played over the unimaginable.
somewhere in my soul I know otherwise.
Never, ever, regret or apologize for believing that when one man or one woman
decides to risk addressing the world with truth, the world may stop what it is
doing and hear.
There is too much evidence to the contrary.
When we cease believing this, the music will surely stop.
The myth of the impossible dream is more powerful than all the facts of
history. In my imagination, I lay flowers at the statue memorializing
Vedran Smailovic -- a monument that has not yet been built, but may be.
a cellist plays in the streets of Sarajevo.
from Maybe (Maybe Not : Second Thoughts from a Secret Life),
by Robert Fulghum