Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O'Brien

Little, Brown and Company, 2015
299 pp

"Come away, O human child
To the waters and the wild,
With a faery, hand in hand, 
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."  
                                                                              -- 152

In 1999 while a full-scale manhunt was on for Radovan Karadžić, aka "the Beast of Bosnia," who was just last year convicted of "genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity" by a UN tribunal, Karadžić managed to escape into Serbia.  In 2005, as Julian Borger reports in The Guardian
"a self-styled spiritual healer and clairvoyant, Mina Minic, answered a ring on his doorbell in Belgrade to find himself face-to-face with a tall man with a long bushy beard, abundant white hair done up in a top-knot tied with a black ribbon. He looked 'like a monk who had done something wrong with a nun,' Minic would recall later." 
This "tall man with a long bushy beard" was none other than Karadžić himself, 
"trying out a new identity provided by sympathisers in Serbian intelligence. He introduced himself as Dragan Dabic, a therapist who had just returned home from a stint in New York following an ugly split with his wife."
He was arrested in Belgrade in July, 2008, but only after
"working for years in a clinic...practicing alternative medicine. He even lectured on videotape at local community centers, in an open and active life..." 
The Little Red Chairs moves the scene from Belgrade to the small Irish town of Cloonoila, where one winter night, Dr. Vladimir Dragan arrives and proceeds to take up work as a holistic healer and sex therapist. People would later remember some bizarre occurrences on that night -- "dogs barking crazily, as if there was thunder, and the sound of the nightingale." At first
"There were those who smelt vice and corruption, while a few lone voices were insisting that he might be an artery for good."
The local schoolmaster responds by relating the story of Rasputin,
"...who hailed from the wilds of Siberia and infiltrated himself into the very nucleus of the Russian court, presenting himself a a visionary and a healer. He was going to lift Russia from its lethargy, and darkness, he was going to cure the sick child of the Czarina, the future heir, of his haemophilia and he was going to perform miracles ad infinitum. Did he cure the heir? No. Did he save the Russian family from the firing squad? No. He was a fornicator and had carnal knowledge of most of the women in the court."
His last words on the topic were a warning that "Rasputin's last supper was a plate of biscuits laced with cyanide." His little speech gave me a jolt -- not knowing anything about this story prior to reading it, the mention of Rasputin and how he had "infiltrated himself into the very nucleus of the Russian court," gave me my first clue that something just may not be right here, that what's on the surface isn't the real story.    On the other hand, throughout the town the thought also floated that perhaps the newcomer would "bring a bit of Romance into our lives."  Eventually the town gets used to him, incorporating their new healer into their lives and activities. Over the space of  the first few chapters O'Brien captures individual thoughts and reactions among the people living there, among them Fidelma McBride.

Fidelma is forty to her husband Jack's sixties, and as we meet her, we find out that the age difference "had begun to matter."  Jack, the local draper, prefers "keeping her to himself, shutting the world out, drawing the heavy velvet curtains too early on a bright evening."  She, however, of the "Gioconda smile,"  is "in her element" among the "warmth and the banter" of others, but most of all, Fidelma is desperate for a child, having lost two during her marriage.  She above all others is drawn to Dr. Vlad -- not necessarily a matter of love but rather centering on her desire to have a baby. The two begin an affair, which leads to serious implications down the road, especially when Dr. Dragan's past catches up with him.  The revelations about his history have a life-changing impact on this woman's life, who eventually makes her way to London after an horrific incident, where she meets other refugees from different parts of the world who have also had to flee their homes, who have suffered as Fidelma states, "fates much harder than mine, excruciating."

O'Brien's introduction of these people into this book as they relate their own stories offers a glimpse of the sorts of horrific realities that would cause people to flee their homelands and just what sort of realities exist for modern refugees trying to make a new life for themselves. This displacement, and the loss of home is a huge theme that carries throughout the story, and not just in Fidelma's situation.  Fidelma carries the added burden of guilt based on what she feels is her complicity, another thematic element that crops up throughout this book. Why, for example, are people so drawn to these self-deluded, "false prophets" who have appeared throughout history and will continue to do so to such horrific ends? It's a good question, and one that people should be considering, especially now.  There is much more, of course, and I'm only scratching the surface here, but it  is a novel very much worth reading.

  The title of O'Brien's novel reflects the line of 11,541 small red chairs laid out on Titova Street in Sarajevo, April 6, 2012  "on the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War."

from The Atlantic, April 13, 2012
In July of 2016 an interview with Edna O'Brien appeared at Faber & Faber's blog where she notes that these "little chairs" are the "emblematic coffins, so to speak, of infants and children who had lost their lives."  She also notes that
"We cannot ignore or avoid what is happening in the world, it is presented on our screens every single moment. It must by necessity come into the work, because we are all witnesses to what is happening. To write about it is not to ease one’s conscience or exalt one’s status. It is simply to be one of the witnesses along the way."
I'm thinking that on a personal level,  the message of standing as witnesses and not looking away just may be the most important one of all in this novel. 

I'm also looking at readers' takes on this book and several people have had a less-than-sterling response to it, largely because it doesn't seem to be the work of the same Edna O'Brien as in her other novels (to which I can't respond because this is my first by her).   I'll agree that in some spots things seemed a bit contrived, and there's a sort of clunky, disjointed feel here and there in terms of structure, but overall, I was completely engrossed in this book which asks some very difficult but pertinent and timely questions. Recommended. 

real reviews: 
James Wood at  The New Yorker
Joyce Carol Oates at The New York Times
Ron Charles at The Washington Post