Vancouver writer Steven Galloway recently managed the Canadian version of "hitting it big" when foreign sales for his novel The Cellist of Sarajevo made him way more money in advances than the Canadian market alone could ever provide. As well, being chosen as one of Heather's picks for Indigo shoppers certainly didn't harm the book's appeal to Canadian readers. He's done very well, our Galloway. And good for him. I read the book recently, and it deserves all the continued attention it will get. Galloway handles gruesome subject matter and impossible human choices with emotional precision.
(Disclosure moment: Galloway and I know each other, and have shared a few laughs. He reviewed my novel for the Globe & Mail and once showed up to a reading I did in Vancouver. I wish we could have beers together often, but there's that whole country thing between us.)
I'm sure only those who survived the siege of Sarajevo can fully comprehend its many-layered absurdities, but Galloway's characters convince me they are there. Not that such convincing even matters. Galloway could have set his book in a completely fictional city siege, and it would have been just as effective. The borrowing of actual recent European history is, I think, incidental to how deeply Galloway enters into real human fear and courage. On the other hand, publishers do love their historical fiction, because readers love it as well. They love it with their wallets.
But history has returned to give Galloway a sharp kick in the shins. As has now been widely reported, the actual cellist referred to in Galloway's title, Vedran Smailovic, has given notice he's unhappy about a number of things, most notably that a now bestselling novel is about him. From the CBC.ca report on the controversy:
"It's not fair, it's not on. It's unbelievable," said the musician, who still composes and records music from a small village south of Belfast, in Northern Ireland.
"How can somebody steal your work, my, my sadness, my, my tragedy?"
Smailovic said that if people are making money off tales from his past, he is entitled to a share of it.
"They put my picture, my face, on the front, on the cover with no permission. They don't ask me — they use my name advertising their product. I don't care about fiction, I care about reality."
I haven't talked to Galloway about this controversy at all but I'm guessing, right now, whatever public posture he needs to assume for all sorts of good legal reasons, he probably feels pretty crappy about what Smailovic has said, especially the part about stealing tragedy.
I feel nothing but encouragement and profound happiness at the thought that my fellow Canadian novelist has actually made a bunch of money from something he wrote. Such an occurrence is ridiculously rare. The man has written two other very good, well-reviewed novels that probably made him enough to get some camping gear at Canadian Tire. Anyone who enters into a career as a writer of literary fiction in Canada with a serious plan to make huge money will have his delusion revealed to him on book number one. If he writes book number two, you can bet the money dream has died and the work continues for art's sake. To make a connection between Galloway's use of a well-known historical event and crass commerce may not be entirely inaccurate because of the wonderful accident of the book's success, but I doubt very much profit was the author's motive.
The historical story of Smailovic playing his cello in a mortar crater in Sarajevo is beyond beautiful. The man performed his public grief with a serenity and style every artist aspires to, and he did so within sight and range of deadly snipers and the same folks who made the surrounding rubble in the first place. He is a hero, and is treated as such in the book. Galloway builds his own fictional cellist character into a complex and fragile metaphor for battered redemption.
Should the world reward Smailovic for what he did? Absolutely. Should that reward be monetary? Why not?
Does Steven Galloway owe him money? I don't think so.
Many reports about this controversy have noted that the fictional cellist character is unnamed in the novel, and really only shows up in the first five pages. The rest of the book concentrates on the lives and actions of other Sarajevans with varying degrees of historical precedent. These are accurate points, but I'm not sure they're relevant. Galloway wrote a book of fiction, inspired by real events in our shared history. His product is a literary text, not more history. In other words, he has not claimed any ownership over what happened in Sarajevo. He has simply made art from it, in much the same way Smailovic made art from what was happening around him. And here I think Galloway himself would make a wry comment about Smailovic being the braver of the two artists.
I'm currently finishing up a Henning Mankell murder mystery that takes place partly in South Africa just after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The novel's characters include then South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk and Foreign Minister Pik Botha, as well as Mandela himself. Mankell's books sell like crazy all over the world. Does he owe money to those who ended Apartheid?
I don't actually know if all the proper rights were cleared for use of the book's cover photo (which features the cellist in the rubble) but of course, if they weren't cleared and paid for, they should have been. As to the text, I believe Galloway's artistic responsibility was completed in his acknowledgments, and I expect he will go further than that and try to privately address any hurt feelings that remain.
I fully anticipate this blog's usual copyleft trollers to make some excited connection between this story and issues of artistic appropriation, or even fan fiction. Have at. But please, before you do, consider the difference between actual people and fictional characters, between actual events and created texts. These differences are kind of crucial to the whole discussion.