THE BACK PAGES

Let him bum his cello. He’s wrong.

NOAH RICHLER August 18 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Let him bum his cello. He’s wrong.

NOAH RICHLER August 18 2008

Let him bum his cello. He’s wrong.

media

A musician who appears in Steven Galloway’s novel is thinking of suing for identity theft

NOAH RICHLER

Steven Galloway has

a habit of walking into it. His novel Ascension, published in September 2003, featured a high-wire acrobat walking a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center (and falling). Understandably, it did not perform that well in the U.S. despite being critically well-received. Now Galloway has followed that novel up with The Cellist of Sarajevo. The book is earning rave reviews and the CBC reports it has already earned him nearly a million dollars in advances. It is a remarkably successful turn for its modest author—a decent, self-effacing and almost awkward 32year-old who is well-known on the Canadian literary circuit for the trouble he takes providing hospitality to colleagues who visit. And it is good news on the home front, too, as Galloway was so inept a worker at the vineyard that used to belong to his wife’s family he was restricted to minding the cash so as to keep him from injury. (Sometimes writers can do nothing else.)

Galloway’s eponymous cellist exists. He is Vedran Smailovic, who at the height of the Bosnian war played for 22 consecutive days at the exact location of the infamous Sarajevo “breadline massacre,” commemorating through the power of art each of the victims who died in the Serb bombardment there. His bold performance of Albinoni’s Adagio inspired Galloway and provided him the scenery of his novel’s opening and climactic pages.

Only now Smailovic, the spoiler, has raised a stink. In a profile in the Times of London, a story picked up by the CBC, Smailovic said he was thinking of suing Galloway. He is threatening to burn his cello and a copy of Galloway’s book in symbolic protest of what he is calling identity theft. And he’d like

“compensation”—i.e., a cut of the profits.

Poor Galloway, still walking into it. Of course he was not much helped by Random House, clearly a bit daft in using a photograph of Smailovic (legally acquired and credited) for the cover of the book without checking in with the cellist first. Galloway himself was too honest for his own good, having dispensed with the habitual disclaimer printed at the front of novels—“The characters in this story bear no resemblance...” that the Canadian novelist Michael Winter so brilliantly made fun of in his comic novel, This All Happened— foolishly choosing, instead, to acknowledge his sources.

Galloway is hardly the first novelist to have plundered so immediately from life—and to end up in trouble for it. Salman Rushdie, in the last interview he gave, before the fatwa fell down upon him in February 1989, to BBC Radio 4 (I was its producer), was concerned not by any offence he might have caused Islam but about his family’s complaining that he was telling stories that belonged to them.

For as long as stories have been “made up,” there have been people who have suggested that their stories had been pinched, or that they were the source of a literary character. My own father, the novelist Mordecai (who had “the Great Antonio” towing a bus at the end of a chain, as the real-life strongman used

to do in Montreal, in Barney’s Version) once shared an American talk show platform with Gore Vidal, who turned to him and said, “So where do you steal your ideas from?” He had enough people claim they had either been the inspiration for Duddy Kravitz or were his present incarnation (Roots co-owner Michael Budman and Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel, among them) that for while I thought it would be amusing to start a website calledlamduddykravitz.com. After he wrote Solomon Gursky Was Here, the Bronfmans, feeling that their activities during Prohibition had been fodder for the book and put them in a shady light, sent their lawyer, Michael Levine, to intimidate my father. Ever the trickster, Dad ended up hiring him.

Smailovic doesn’t have a cello’s leg to stand on. His was a public act and as such Galloway, who does nothing but describe it, has as much right to refer to it as a hockey sportswriter does to comment on goals scored by Sidney Crosby. And presumably, Smailovic played during the siege of Sarajevo because he believed that his art would help end it— and resonate—which is exactly what it did.

The storm will pass and the book will stand or fall on its own merits. So let Smailovic burn his instrument. What Galloway really has to worry about is another of his characters inspired by an actual person, one he says he tried to find but “may be dead.” The woman he calls “Arrow” was a ruthless Bosnian sniper. NI