- - Thursday, June 23, 2016


By Edna O’Brien

Little, Brown & Company, $27, 320 pages

Someone once said whether history remembers you as a rebel or a freedom fighter depends on whether you lose or win. Whether the same applies to a dictator is open to question. Edna O’Brien seems to be playing with these ideas in her new, complex novel, “The Little Red Chairs.”

Miss O’Brien’s title derives from the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces when 11,541 red chairs were “laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of the siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.”

But “The Little Red Chairs” is not about the 1992 Bosnian War as such. It is about the ramifications of war, evil and innocence, victimhood, seduction, vengeance, remorse, the plight of immigrants, as well as the bucolic charm of rural Ireland. Not all of the plot works, but the novel is engrossing, beautifully written, and offers the reader much to think about.

The story begins like a fable. A mysterious stranger, “like a Holy man with a white beard and white hair, in a long black coat,” wearing white gloves, arrives in the Irish village of Cloonoila. Dr. Vladimir Dragan sets up shop as a healer and sex therapist. Like a pied piper, he mesmerizes the villagers, especially the women, with his poetry, hands-on healing talent and personal charm.

Dr. Vlad teaches the children about nature and poetry; he charms the skeptical villagers, from his reticent landlady to the defrocked priest. But it is on Fidelma McBride, the draper’s 40-year-old beautiful wife, that he has the greatest effect.

Fidelma’s husband, Jack, was 20 years her senior, and though she had conceived twice, she miscarried and now fears she would never bear a child. Fidelma falls in love with Dr. Vlad, and soon is pregnant.

Darkness descends. Dr. Vlad, it turns out, was a wanted war criminal accused of murder, torture and war crimes committed in the Balkans. He is apprehended and taken to prison to be tried. Fidelma is stunned. In a strange, almost inexplicable incident, she is kidnapped by three men whom Dr. Vlad has cheated, and subjected to a brutal, violent, horrific punishment, vividly described.

Her reputation in tatters, Fidelma flees to London. There, she takes a series of demeaning jobs, beginning as a cleaner in a bank building. The cleaners were “night people, one step away from ghosts, and strangers to each other. Some had husbands, … and many had children … Many had fled horror, countries they could never go back to, while still others yearned for home. They all carried memories and the essence of their first place, known only to them.”

One of her fellow cleaners introduces her to the Centre, where “people from all over came in search of advice, then once a fortnight they gathered to share the stories of their fractured lives … They are there because they have nowhere else to go. Nobodies, mere numbers on paper or computer, the hunted, the haunted, the raped, the defeated, the mutilated, the banished, the flotsam of the world, unable to go home, wherever home is.” Fidelma too is an immigrant, searching for her place in the world while longing for the green, green grass of home.

Fidelma is punished physically, and psychologically by the villagers and her husband. She atones for her crime. She confronts remorseless Dr. Vlad. Returning to Cloonoila, she makes her peace with Jack, but ultimately chooses her life in exile.

Dr. Vlad takes no responsibility for his far greater crimes. In a dream, he remembers “the constant rat-tat-tat of the mortars and sniper fire, eliminating the scum down in the city.” Outsiders “could not imagine the carnage, rotting bodies, rotting garbage, dogs roaming wild and a few stalwarts creeping along the alleys to scavenge for bread.”

Coincidentally, at approximately the same time as the novel’s publication, the real-life Radovan Karadzic, the “butcher of Bosnia,” on whom Miss O’Brien’s Dr. Vlad is based, was sentenced in The Hague to 40 years for genocide. He had lived in hiding as a doctor of alternative medicine and psychology.

The lovely descriptions of Ireland (“From the slenderest twigs of overhanging trees in the Folk Park, the melting ice drips, with soft, susurrus sound …”) are juxtaposed against darker descriptions (“Brown dust. White dust. Black dust. The black dust was the most ingrained of all and … must be rooted out of the corners. Glass was washed with lukewarm water and wiped down with endless balls of newspaper.”)

Miss O’Brien is a superb storyteller, and her fable turned tragedy gives rise to such questions as complicity, innocence, responsibility and loneliness. It is a novel not easily forgotten.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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