The sole musician playing in defiance of the chaos around him has become almost an icon in disaster and war movies. Who could fail to be stirred by the melodramatic scene in Titanic
of the quartet that continued to play on as the ship went down in an effort to quell the panic and bolster the(ir own) spirits? And of not so recent vintage is a Polish film made just after the war, in which a gentleman, despite a Nazi edict banning certain songs and at grave risk of being shot on sight or sent to a concentration camp, regularly plays his violin in a Warsaw courtyard-literally to earn his daily bread. His music so enchants the strife-worn souls that a Jew, hiding out in an apartment overlooking the courtyard, ends up betraying his own presence when he throws some food down to the violinist in appreciation. Music has power not only to soothe, it seems, but also to remind us, palpably and in face of danger, that we are human beings and connected to one another in a human community.
Why the excursus in a children's books' column? Well, children have rarely been spared the traumas of war. So children, all the more, may need to be introduced to the healing power of art-to the healing that comes through the performing and reception of art-and to the simple human courage to which it gives expression. Thus the rationale for the collaborative children's book project by Elizabeth Wellburn and Deryk Houston, Echoes from the Square.
Echoes from the Square is a beautifully, vibrantly illustrated and eloquent tribute to Vedran Smailovic, a musician who, in 1992, played his cello for twenty-two consecutive days on a bomb-devastated street in Sarajevo to honour twenty-two victims of a horrendous blast. It is the inspiring story of the transformation of a city: from a beautiful, peaceful place where people greet each other with smiles, and children go about their daily routine of play and studies as children should, through the looming threat of war, the devastation caused by falling bombs, dying friends, isolation, the terror of uncertainty; to a rediscovery of a sense of togetherness and hope for the future. This is Sarajevo and its resonances are immediate and unequivocal, but it could just as well be any city under seige, for there is no mention of which national group did what to which other national group-just the expression of an impersonal war having a very personal impact.
The story is told from the perspective of a young boy, an aspiring violinist, trying to make sense of what is going on around him. One day, while carefully and fearfully making his way home through the shell-fired streets with his family's daily ration of water, Alen chances upon a musician in the square. For three weeks, the cellist plays in that square, enthralling those who dare to stop feeling afraid and listen. Accepting an invitation to dinner, he relates to Alen's family that the adagio is a reconstruction of one small remnant of destroyed musical scripts (by the composer, Albinoni, perhaps?) discovered in the rubble of a bombed-out building. The cellist has been playing the piece in memory of the people who were killed in a blast while standing in line for a bread truck, and the would-be rescuers who were shot by a sniper. He explains the moral, in an italicized script that curiously lends an air of both authentic narration and otherworldliness to the story's fictionality: "I was afraid, I am still afraid. Everybody who's sane is afraid when there are bullets and shells in the air. But when I play, the darkness is lifted and I am able to show the world my other feelings. Music is love that connects people. My wish is for everybody to be able to share this."
Like the reconstruction of the last remaining fragment of musical script and the playing of the adagio for a parched audience, so the composing of Echoes from the Square constitutes a "prayer for peace" and healing that are long overdue.
Alicia Sloboda is a Toronto writer.