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Cellist vs. Cellist

Seems there’s a bit of controversy brewing around Steven Galloway’s novel The Cellist of Sarajevo, which was published a few months back by Knopf Canada. (Read Q&Q‘s review here.) According to the CBC, the real-life cellist Vedran Smailovic, who served as the inspiration for the book’s title character, is now demanding compensation for it, claiming that Galloway never contacted him to seek permission to be included in the novel.

With a stool and his cello, Smailovic once played on top of the rubble from a deadly mortar attack in Sarajevo. In plain view of snipers, he played for 22 days straight ā€ one day for each person killed during the mortar attack.

So does the character in Steven Galloway’s book, published this year. It’s a war tale woven around three characters in Sarajevo and their reaction to a cellist character inspired by Smailovic, whose story has travelled around the globe.

[…]

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 ā€ they use my name advertising their product. I don’t care about fiction, I care about reality.”

Whichever way you look at it, this is a pretty sticky situation with no clear-cut answers. It’s hard not to sympathize with Smailovic, but based on the info in the CBC piece, it sounds as if Galloway only ever meant to pay homage to the man, and that he did so in a fairly respectful fashion. The Smailovic character is prominently featured only in the first five pages of the book, he never speaks, and he is mostly used as a thematic device to link the other three characters. Galloway even sent Smailovic an autographed copy of the book, which suggests that he expected Smailovic would like it.

Our guess is that Smailovic probably doesn’t have a very good understanding of how the publishing business works, and is under a false impression that there are Hollywood-style profits coming Galloway’s way. And we kind of wonder if maybe the CBC doesn’t have the best understanding of publishing either, as the piece implies at one point that Galloway should (or could) have offered compensation to Smailovic or the other 25 people he interviewed in researching the book. First of all, it was just background research for a work of fiction, not non-fiction, and second, the CBC would presumably be much more outraged if they discovered Galloway had paid people for the stories, which is one of the age-old ethical taboos of journalism.

As for Smailovic’s concern about being put on the book’s cover, he has more of a case there, but even that is not so cut-and-dried. The cover (which you can see here) is indeed a photo of him, but it’s oriented so that his face and most of his body are cut from the image, as if the cameraman was wandering away from the nominal subject to take in the devastated surroundings instead. In fact, it could be argued that the cover is attempting to show, in visual terms, that the cellist is not the book’s real subject at all, which only helps Galloway’s case.