Little Red Chairs

A novel that intends to confront the presence of evil, to give it full sway in human form, has to have some notion of theodicy as background – if only as the radiation that we are told is left over from the Big Bang. How in this secular world is that achieved? Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs brings us a theater of evil, one that is tied to the very real horrors of the Bosnian war and the siege of Sarajevo. Her response to evil’s presence is resigned, unflinching, and transformed by her art. Yet even amidst O’Brien’s  establishment of the conflicts in the  novel, she has a chief character ask, “So literature is not enough?”" What is the efficacy of what I inten?" the novel seems to ask.

The book opens with the entry of a disrupting figure: “like a Holy man with a white beard and white hair, in a long black coat.” He intrudes on a pastoral Irish landscape and soon is identified as a folktale figure, a “Pooka Man,” by a gypsy child. Speculation abounds in the village of Coolonila, especially when Vladimir Dragan, enacts the role of shaman, healer, sex therapist, and repository of secrets, natural and other.  (The character is a fictional embodiment of the fugitive war criminal Radovan Karadzic who hid for ten years and was both doctor and self-proclaimed poet.) O’Brien offers us a counter factual life in which Vlad disrupts Coolonila; his galvanizing presence ensnares the innocent, clergy and lay alike, and undoes in her naiveté, the beautiful Fidelma. It is her story which tests the extent of evil’s power, and in so far as the crimes of Vlad and his cohorts allow, offers us a resolution through theater. The novel is rife with literary allusions: Vlad quotes Shakespeare, his seduction of Fildelma begins after a book club discussion of Dido in the Aeneid, Macbeth is a presiding presence in Fildema’s late confrontation of Vlad, and the novel ends with a happily flawed amateur production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Why, we have to ask, is the motley staging of a play replete with ass’s head and the hopelessly deceived pairs of lovers offered as resolution to Fidelma’s trials? Can the cathartic effect, if such it is, really accommodate Fidelma’s suffering and those even greater tortures of the other players –refugees and outcasts all? In the play we see mistaken love, a fairy or folk tale enchantment, and the blind perverseness of artifice relieves the corruption of innocence.  The crushing force of ethnic cleansing and the myriad other horrors that beset the cast of refugees call for resolution in an appended finale: each of the players speaks the word for “home” in his or her native tongue. Home is where the action leaves them, with each other.

The tale seems to tell us that only in dramatic enactment can the deceptions of evil be resolved. Yet life, in particular the vengeful abortion visited on Fidelma by Vlad’s former cohorts, dispels any illusions about the effects of intimacy with evil.  Nowhere does the novel let us forget the crimes against humanity the Vlad in his final self-presentation, as righteous diplomat and austere patriot, dismisses. It is not costume and make-up that transforms, but self-acknowledgement; indeed one must own the evil within. The conclusion aspires to ritual, the displacement of self in a process larger than the self. The consolations that come are secular, the unity self-evidently human and, as human, frail.

At eighty-five Edna O’Brien has lived through more than her share of the age’s evil. She began her career condemned (by the Irish Church) and praised (by her literary peers). In her almost forty published works, she has never avoided controversy especially in her honest portrayal of women’s experiences. That she should so late in her life explore the workings of evil is tribute to her extraordinary imaginative powers and artistic integrity. I fear my reading has been reductive; what I have not conveyed is the effect of the lyrical beauty of the writing, the invention of incidents that mirror and extend the major themes, and the presentation of her characters who refuse to remain flat or stock and cry for the very notice that the plot denies them. I can end on no better way than to quote the novel’s last line: “You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music there can be wrung from it.”

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Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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