In 2008, Radovan Karadžić, the ‘Butcher of Bosnia,’ was captured in Belgrade and went on to be convicted by an international tribunal, of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Heavily bearded and with his distinctively abundant white hair styled in a pony tail, this fugitive had been working in a false identity (Dr. Dragan Dabić) as a new age healer and sex therapist in Vienna and Belgrade.
"The Little Red Chairs," Edna O’Brien’s latest novel, her first in 10 years, opens in the classic Tolstoy tradition when an enigmatic stranger comes to town. The plot has a bearded and pony-tailed new age healer and sex therapist of Balkan origin settling in Cloonoila, a fictitious Irish coastal town. The fictional Dr. Vladimir Dragan is not a thinly disguised version of Karadžić. The similarities are such that, effectively, he is Karadžić. Known to the ghost who haunts his guilt-laden dreams as Vuk (Radovan Karadžić had dubiously claimed to be related to the celebrated Serbian philologist and folklorist Vuk Karadžić), the stranger inevitably intrigues and beguiles the locals.
None is more deeply affected by his presence than beautiful, dark-haired, frustrated poet Fidelma McBride. Emotionally emptied by a joyless marriage to an older man, two miscarriages and subsequent childlessness, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that she yields to her suppressed libido and asks the charismatic stranger to heal her personal pain in a very personal way. Flouting convention, their liaison is destined to end badly but the results of this particular affair are unexpectedly and unimaginably awful [caveat lector!]. The story next takes the reader from Ireland to London, to the desperate world of asylum seekers and night workers, and later to The Hague as, Fidelma’s life having taken a downturn, she seeks a cathartic remedy for her pain and redemption for her sin.
Written in her usual beautifully crafted prose, this novel is also faultlessly and tirelessly researched. O’Brien employs changes of tense and perspective for effect – a technique that a lesser writer would not get away with. Placing such a high profile war criminal in the west of Ireland may seem far-fetched, yet it actually works very well. Karadžić did not, as far as we know, try to hide out in Connaught, a community reputedly so tolerant of strangers, but he might well have done so. Some might consider the plodding jobsworth of a village policeman to be something of a stereotype, but, of course, stereotypes exist for a reason.
I was intrigued to read the latest work by an author whose early novels were banned and indeed burned in her native country but were read surreptitiously by convent schoolgirls such as myself. This book, however, is a very different offering from O’Brien’s early novels. The book’s title references the 643 little red children’s chairs that formed part of the 2012 art installation in Sarajevo, placed in memory of the 11,541 citizens – 643 of them children – who perished during the 44-month siege of that city. Thus, the title links the death of those innocents with the loss of Fidelma’s own infants, which is the root of the tragedy.
Written in the ninth decade of her life, this novel seems to have less reference to O’Brien’s own suffocating Irish childhood, so perhaps the author’s own personal catharsis is now achieved. The spirit-dulling atmosphere of Cloonoila and its able-but-unfulfilled characters certainly appear authentic. What I found a tad less-authentic, however, was the dialogue of the foreign migrants as they each related their personal histories in therapeutic fashion and in similarly broken English. I felt these were rather lengthy and unrealistically spontaneous. I accepted that one of them might have picked up the Blytonesque word ‘oodles’ from an employer or social worker – until I encountered the word again just a little later on in the author’s narrative.
Edna O’Brien’s book has attracted many lofty tributes, attracting such words of acclaim as ‘provocative,’ ‘masterly,’ ‘mesmerising’ and ‘her masterpiece.’ So, did I enjoy it? I’m not sure that I did, but perhaps it is a book that had to be written. It is indeed provocative, written with worthy intent, and it will stir many a conscience. Choosing such a devastating back story for a protagonist was a brave step, a step which perhaps only an author of O’Brien’s stature dared take.
Nowadays, I imagine, readers are harder to shock than they were back in the ‘60s, and, despite the themes of intense evil, genocide and even female genital mutilation that the novel contains, I suspect no-one will be banning or burning this book.