‘What a book that would have been, your beloved, Sarajevo, with its eleven thousand, five hundred and forty-one empty red chairs, including the little ones for the children. In our quasi-mysticism, that surely has not completely abandoned you, the book you will never write will be full of cries. The lamentations of the dead, seeking their others in the underworld, not knowing if those others are already dead, or still in the zone of the living. Yes, a Book of the Night. As you exit the world stage, with the Angel of Death waiting to settle your account, or as you put it to the children in the forest, earlier today, for the cosmic payback for evil that has been done, even you will tremble.’
The Little Red Chairs is a somewhat unsettling blend of realism, fable, and morality tale. At first it reads like a familiar kind of ‘life in an Irish village’ novel, with its cast of quirky characters, most of them with a shading of poignancy. Into the village, Cloonoila, comes a stranger–again, a familiar move, with its hint of fairy tale or parable–whose disruptive force initially seems benign, even welcome. He advertises himself as a healer and sex therapist, and for one villager in particular, Fidelma, stifled in her marriage and grief-stricken by her inability to have a child, these are exactly the services she needs. From Dr. Vlad, as he is known, she receives treatment, then companionship, and finally something that seems like love–which would be a good thing for Fidelma, except that we know something she doesn’t: Dr. Vlad is not an eccentric New Age healer with the instincts of a poet but a wanted war criminal known as the Beast of Bosnia.
O’Brien’s dramatic irony creates suspense, as we wait for the revelation of Dr. Vlad’s real identity, and also discomfort, as we watch Fidelma’s intimacy with him grow. There isn’t any ambiguity about his monstrosity: the novel is not about the difficult possibility that his humanity still has a claim on us in spite of the evil he has done. There is no redemptive arc for Dr. Vlad, no interest in parsing the potential for sympathy even for the worst of us, though as Dr. Vlad himself proposes once in conversation with Fidelma, that is one thing that a novel can do:
They discussed the Russian writers, she sometimes having copied out a paragraph to read to him and one day he put it to her that the reason they loved books was because the crimes in people’s hearts were rendered more fatefully and more forgivingly in literature.
By the end of The Little Red Chairs, when we have been reminded in harrowing detail about the horrors of the Bosnian war and heard Dr. Vlad’s appalling testimony in his own defense at his trial in the Hague, forgiveness seems both impossible and beside the point. Forgiveness, after all, keeps the story centered on the perpetrator, and though Dr. Vlad is a major character, The Little Red Chairs is not his novel: it’s Fidelma’s.
It’s not just Fidelma’s, though, and here again O’Brien’s narrative choices are interesting. Though there is some shifting around of perspective in the first section, the movement of the novel is fairly linear until Dr. Vlad’s identity is revealed and he is arrested. One of the consequences of his discovery is an attack on Fidelma so horrific that it was difficult for me to read to the end of the few pages it takes up. It is not the first scene of appalling violence in the novel, but it is by far the most immediate and personal. It changes everything–not just Fidelma, now herself a kind of casualty of war, but the novel. From this point on it follows Fidelma’s attempt to make a new life for herself away from Cloonoila, but rather than focusing on her singular experience it folds in other stories of victims and refugees from violence.
Ultimately I thought The Little Red Chairs felt a bit miscellaneous, but I am also not sure what kind of unity or resolution a novel with these ingredients could have that wouldn’t feel pat. Is there a lesson to be learned from Fidelma’s experience? It can’t be “don’t trust strangers,” because even though Fidelma was catastrophically mistaken, there’s no way she could have known and no way to live in constant suspicion of monstrosity that wouldn’t almost certainly make the world a worse, rather than a better, place. It might be “you will answer for your crimes,” as the passage I chose for my epigraph suggests (it is a speech made to Dr. Vlad in a dream, which gives it something of the force of a prophecy)–except that the novel is populated with people for whom there seems to be no justice or redress, including Fidelma herself.
The novel’s title is an obvious place to look for answers about what it all means. It alludes to the memorial to the victims of the siege of Sarajevo: one red chair for each of them, including 643 for the children. Here’s a photo, from the site Remembering Srebrenica:
It’s a powerful memorial, the individual chairs taking on significance and resonance as the scale of the tragedy accumulates but each of them still clearly representing one particular life lost, one unique story of suffering and death. Parts of The Little Red Chairs do mimic this structure. During the trial, for example, after the prosecutor lays out a summary of
the thousands of civilians arrested, brutalised, killed, the tens of thousands uprooted by force, the hundreds of thousands besieged for months, years, killing sprees, cyclones of revenge, detainees held in dreadful places of detention and hundreds executed
three individual cases are presented, “selected from the mass of evidence.” Their personal details turn statistics into stories. Similarly, at the refugee center where Fidelma works, people tell their stories of horror and displacement and escape. One of them is Bosnian, but they come from all over, so perhaps one implication is that in a way, the whole world is like Sarajevo. When it’s Fidelma turn to speak, she struggles to explain what happened to her. “It turned out that a new man came amongst us in the guise of a prophet,” she says, “but he had done appalling things.” He ruined her life, but like the others whose stories she hears, she is now building a new one from the ruins.