Book Review: 'The Little Red Chairs' By Edna O'BrienEdna O'Brien's new book is set in a little Irish village disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious stranger, a war criminal in hiding whose murderous hands can heal as well as kill.
On a cold, dark night, a stranger arrives in an Irish village. He's a healer, he says, and a sex therapist. His name is Dr. Vladimir Dragan, but he is known as "Vuk," or "wolf," and he is a wolf in a land of sheep.
"Maybe he'll bring a bit of Romance into our lives," the owner of the local pub says.
But Dr. Vlad is a war criminal in hiding, the "Butcher of Bosnia." He is based on the very real war criminal Radovan Karadžić, whom the U.N. has just convicted of genocide for his role in the siege of Sarajevo. There are hints of violence under his courteous exterior: angry late night phone calls, poems about "bullets being slender and majestic and strapping wolves coming down from the hills."
"It was not like Yeats," his landlady thinks when he reads them to her. "No, not like Yeats's wandering waters in the pools of Glencar." Yeats or no, Dr. Vlad is more than just a monster in a mask, who smiles and smiles and is a villain. He does heal his patients, and this duality reveals the way evil can coexist with grace and empathy — can and must, even. His healing hands are also butcher's hands.
Dr. Vlad's philosophy (as he explains to the village priest) relies on the "analogy of opposites." O'Brien, as an artist rather than a doctor, achieves this by showing the interreliance of apparently opposite things, that the personal is global, horror has beauty, healing and destruction rely on knowledge of the body. Traumas elsewhere carry so implacably, so inevitably to the quiet corners of the world, and unbearably intimate violence finds its natural echo in world conflict. "An individual is no match for history," she quotes Roberto Bolaño on the title page.
Everywhere in this novel, the tragic is marbled with the quotidian, the quotidian with the tragic. A cook "plunges lobsters into vats of boiling water and prays for the repose of their souls." During a massacre, gunmen asked for chairs to sit in, they were "so tired from killing." Even mass murderers get sore legs, even cooking dinner has its shades of horror.
O'Brien gives each minor character in her story a blossoming and real inner life: the landlady, the nun, the barman, and the priest are shaded full, lonely or joyful, longing or peaceful. There's nothing perfunctory, nothing of caricature in characters who could so easily be stock villagers. The sturdy, liberal-minded nun takes it upon herself to try out the doctor's healing treatment, to report back to the village. "She would tell them about the colored lights ... and the effigies of gods and goddesses," she decides. "But she would not tell them that when she got up from the treatment bed and he had left the room, her energy was prodigal, a wildness such as she had not known since her youth, out in the fields when she pissed against trees, the way men did, pissed unashamedly. She would not tell them that."
It is remarkable that O'Brien captures an extraordinary and almost holy innerness in each of her characters, however minor, and then plants those characters amidst the terrible velocity, the terrible pull of world events. O'Brien is truly at her best when she describes the private corners of minds, those quiet and wild corners, our meditative and our inspired selves, the self that Virginia Woolf called "a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others." It is that place, that private silence, that O'Brien catches, like catching a cloud.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.