“On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the 800 meters of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.” – from “The Little Red Chairs”
What do the fairy tale setting in a remote Irish town and Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, have in common? In a sane world, nothing. In her alternate history, 85-year-old Edna O’Brien combines what begins as an apparent folktale with the chilling angst of an Irish woman, Fidelma, who stumbles beneath the butcher’s spell before she knows he’s the butcher. As a stranger in her small town, Vlad is an event, a hypnotizing holy man and trickster with wisdom and danger in his eyes, the kind of man every mother warns every daughter about.
As the story begins with all the charm of “The Music Man,” it’s easy to fall beneath the steel wheels of O’Brien’s spell and hope against hope tht her words are leading toward something perhaps a bit scandalous, something that might leave the townspeople–and especially Fidelma–with a few bittersweet scars of the kind that aren’t really cut that deep. But O’Brien’s tale goes where it must, to graphic and unspeakable horror from which Fidelma cannot quite escape. None of those 11,541 chairs was for her, but–if she had lived and breathed outside of fiction–destiny owed her a chair and, perhaps, absolution.
The Butcher of Bosnia is, in some mysterious way, the air which this story needs in order to breathe, and yet in other ways who he is and what he did are not the novel’s focus. The focus is Fiedelma, her suffering, her acts which were a curse to her village, her misplaced innocence that brought her, as naivete often does, to a hell from which there was no escape.
This novel is not for the faint of heart. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her New York Times review, “O’Brien is not interested in sensationalizing her material, and ‘The Little Red Chairs’ is not a novel of suspense, still less a mystery or a thriller; it is something more challenging, a work of meditation and penance. How does one come to terms with one’s own complicity in evil, even if that complicity is ‘innocent’? Should we trust the stranger who arrives out of nowhere in our community? Should we mistrust the stranger? When is innocence self-destructive? Given the nature of the world, when is skepticism, even cynicism, justified? Much is made of innocence in fiction, as in life, but in O’Brien’s unsentimental imagination the innocent suffer greatly because they are not distrustful enough.”
When we consort with the devil, by whatever name he identifies himself, should we not expect betrayal? It’s not an easy question, spells being what they are and innocence being what it is. Is there a message in this book? Yes: trust ensures our doom.
Oates’ questions are ever on our minds these days when terrorism comes out of nowhere and visits pleasant communities and exuberant celebrations in large cities. I wonder if we can afford to be innocent these days. If not, what a pity. Suffice it to say, Fidelma will find little pity because those who (we often say) should have known better are seldom afforded the compassion granted the skeptical or the ignorant.
Yes, this novel is a masterpiece. Yes, it is well told, dark and deep. But it should carry on its cover a warning: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” You cannot read this novel without being forever changed. I dealt with the book quickly here because I am too faint of hear to speak about it at length.