Edna O’Brien’s chilling new novel inspired by the life of Radovan Karadzic arrives just as the Butcher of Bosnia has finally been sentenced to 40 years in prison for genocide. If Karadzic’s long-delayed punishment brings some element of resolution to the Bosnian civil war, O’Brien’s novel picks at that war’s scars, forcing us to feel the lingering, outlying disfigurement wreaked by an evil man.
Europeans are more likely than Americans to catch the poignant allusion in O’Brien’s title, “The Little Red Chairs.” In 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo, a theater company filled the center of that once smoldering town with 11,541 red chairs to commemorate the lives of the victims. More than 600 of those chairs were little ones representing the children who had been killed.
But nothing about this book’s opening betrays such vicious content. O’Brien brings us to the Irish village of Cloonoila, which has not welcomed anybody quite as exciting as Dr. Vladimir Dragan in years. A young bartender, who is the first to meet him, swears that the stranger behaves like “a gentleman, an out-and-out gentleman down to his pointy shoes.” The villagers are all atwitter about this handsome, bearded man with the “aura of one of those holy men, pilgrims that used to travel around, barefoot, doing good.” When they learn that he’s not just a doctor but an actual “sex therapist,” the town practically shudders in unison.
There are layers of deception being perpetrated here. O’Brien, undiminished at the age of 85, proceeds as though she’s spinning some mossy comedy of village life with set pieces polished to an emerald shine. Like a modern-day Music Man, the mysterious doctor dazzles the town gossips with references to “Siddhartha” and Ovid. His first patient is a skeptical nun who arrives for a “medicinal” massage and lies “peeping through the slits of her almost closed eyes, for fear of any hanky panky.” (She dare not tell the sisters that afterward, “her energy was prodigal, a wildness such as she had not known since her youth.”) Dr. Vladimir even wins over the local priest, who worries that this out-of-town therapist might bring in “a lot of new-fangled ideas . . . and a whiff of Darwinism maybe.”
O’Brien’s perfectly calibrated BBC charm is as much a facade as Dr. Vladimir’s aesthete persona. But as we catch glimpses of the doctor’s true nature (and O’Brien’s literary cunning), a lonely woman in town named Fidelma falls under his spell. Forty years old, married to a much older man, Fidelma has miscarried twice and fears that she will never have a child. In a chapter that she narrates herself, she mocks the extravagant rumors about Dr. Vladimir’s healing abilities but confesses that she’s begun to dream about him. “It was the mist that did it,” she claims. “A white mist, like a winding muslin, enfolds our part of the world from time to time.”
That touch of woodland fantasy runs through the novel from start to finish, even when the story shifts into the horrific reality of recent history as gently as twilight fades to night. Indeed, “The Little Red Chairs” contains one of the most indelibly gruesome torture scenes I’ve ever read. But O’Brien’s real subject is not the Bosnian civil war, which she alludes to only periodically, or Radovan Karadzic, whose biographical details she only sketches. She is primarily interested in this tangential victim, Fidelma, a woman who finds her modest life poisoned by a brief intersection with one of the 20th century’s most famous monsters.
As a reflection on the problem of evil, “The Little Red Chairs” takes a curious, destabilizing approach. Fidelma is not like those victims named by the United Nations. None of the 11,541 red chairs is set for her. Her involvement with the Butcher of Bosnia is incidental, almost tawdry. As she confesses later, “I had a part in his life, a walk-on part.” But if her sorrow is merely collateral — what she calls “counterfeit guilt” — her punishment is unspeakable. What does it cost, O’Brien asks, to fall under the sway of such wicked magnetism? How does one ever feel clean again? In this extraordinary articulation of the lingering effects of trauma, Fidelma finds herself ejected into the world, having “lost all connection between what is natural and what is unnatural.”
During one of their last conversations, Dr. Vladimir tells Fidelma, “Start forgetting. . . . everything,” but she doesn’t have the mass murderer’s essential amnesia. In the fractured scenes that fill out the second half of the novel, she exists in a stunned state of shame and terror, running through menial jobs, convinced that she’s a failure even as a testifier to her own victimhood. She remains at a strange emotional remove from us, out of reach of our sentimentality or pity, a survivor of something so horrific that we can’t look directly at her.
In the end, what leaves one in humbled awe of “The Little Red Chairs” is O’Brien’s dexterity, her ability to shift without warning — like life — from romance to horror, from hamlet to hell, from war crimes tribunal to midsummer night’s dream. And through it all, she embeds the most perplexing moral challenge ever conceived in the struggles of one lonely, middle-aged woman who just wanted a baby but now wanders the earth along with so many others, “craving the valleys and small instances of mercy.”
At a time when our best writers are such delightfully showy stylists, O’Brien, who has been publishing novels for more than 50 years, practices a darker, more subtle magic. Surprise and transformation lurk in even the smallest details, the most ordinary moments. Craving company one night, Fidelma wanders into a pub and sits down: “Behind her, on the windowsill, there are a few flowers in a small vase and when she touches one, she jumps in terror, dismayed by that tenderness, that touch.”
Brace yourself for that same charge when you touch this novel.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On April 3 at 6 p.m., Edna O’Brien will be at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 877-987-6487.
By Edna O’Brien
Little, Brown and Co. 297 pp. $27.