The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien: Book Note
Edna O’Brien has written many novels about Irish girls and young women, most of which I’ve read over the years. This novel is very different, being very political. The reference in the title is to the 11,541 red chairs--including 643 chairs for children--set up in Sarajevo in 2012 to commemorate the siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces during the ex-Yugoslavia wars. 2012 was the 20th anniversary of the siege.
In Part I, a foreigner called Vladimir Dragan arrives in an improbably innocent Irish village, setting himself up as a “healer” and mesmerizing people with his charm, knowledge and exoticism. Fidelma, a beautiful 40-year-old who has endured two miscarriages, falls in love with him and begs him to impregnate her, which he does. Vlad is later exposed as a Serbian war criminal by the younger brother of one of his victims, who happens to be working in a nearby hotel. Vlad is arrested, while Fidelma is kidnapped and raped with a crowbar by his erstwhile enemies, killing her “Serbian” child.
In Part II, Fidelma goes to London, where she lives a poverty-stricken life that puts her in touch with refugees, rape victims, illegal immigrants, and various other people living an underground life. Along the way there are several set pieces in which individuals tell each other their stories of war, migration, poverty, homelessness, and misogyny. At one point Fidelma lives with an African woman who migrated to London after her husband took a second wife, and whose neighbor is a lonely little girl who is not in school because she and her father are illegal immigrants. Another woman Fidelma meets has come to London to protect her daughter from female genital mutilation.
Eventually Fidelma travels to The Hague, where Vlad is now on trial. After realizing he will never apologize to her or acknowledge his crimes, she returns to Ireland.
The character of Vlad is based on Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist who from 1992 to 1996 was President of Republika Skrypska, a Serbian enclave in Bosnia. After 1996 he hid in plain sight for many years within Yugoslavia, posing as an “alternative healer.” It’s thought that Serbian authorities knew where he was but protected him. He was eventually arrested and sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. He was convicted on March 24, 2016 of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Vlad shows how psychologically complex mass murderers can be; he loves flowers and poetry and plays the gusle (a musical instrument that looks like a one-stringed violin). We know that many Nazis, including Nazi doctors, had similarly complex psyches, enjoying classical concerts played by Jewish prisoners after long days of mass murder. Edna O’Brien said in an interview that she found Karadzic’s “duality” as a mass murderer and a healer interesting: I just thought he was preying on vulnerable people with fake cures.
In discussion with fellow members of my book clubs, the question came up what the theme of The Little Red Chairs might have been. Perhaps it was evil. Vlad is evil’s embodiment, and Fidelma wonders if she was complicit in evil. She feels remorseful for having slept with Vlad, even though she did not know his true identity at the time. She does not tell ex-Yugoslavian refugees whom she meets in London about the rape and torture she herself endured, when they criticize her for her relationship with Vlad. When she visits him in The Hague, she expects Vlad to feel express remorse but instead he mocks her quest for “truth, justice, atonement.”
Another theme was women’s suffering, especially the suffering of the various women characters who endure miscarriage, still-born births, and various “natural” tragedies not connected to politics. In her autobiography, Country Girl, Edna O’Brien recounts her own suffering as a woman, which I describe in my blog of April 7, 2015: http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2015/04/book-note-country-girl-memoir-by-edna.html. This raises the questions of whether all women might be “sisters,” because all are vulnerable to such natural tragedies, but is this false sisterhood. Miscarriages and stillbirths, however sad, do not compare to rapes, torture, and warfare.
I didn’t find this to be as fulfilling a novel as many other readers did. There were too many set pieces, seemingly inserted so that O’Brien could incorporate as many political themes as possible, so that the book seemed rather didactic. Too many characters are introduced but then don’t reappear. It seems as if O’Brien invented the character of Fidelma in order to tie together disparate political events and misogynist practices. In the end, O’Brien brings all her characters together for a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I looked up the plot summary of this play by William Shakespeare and found it very confusing, and I could not see any analogies to characters in this novel.
Nevertheless, professors who read this blog might want to assign The Little Red Chairs to their students. It is a good way to introduce students to scholarship on genocide, transitional justice, and women’s rights (or lack thereof). I discussed these topics when I presented the book recently to one of my book clubs. In the past I’ve often used memoirs or novels to introduce students to various political events, and found that to be a successful teaching method.