Edna O’Brien’s “The Little Red Chairs” is a disturbing yet compelling account of the direct and peripheral impact of a charismatic genocidist. Beautifully written, the book takes its title from the 11,541 red chairs laid out in rows in Sarajevo on April 6, 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces. “One chair for each Sarajevan killed during the 1425 days of siege.”
The story starts in Cloonoila, Ireland, when a bearded man in a long dark coat from Montenegro shows up at a local bar, seeking lodgings. Vladamir Dragon was, according to his business card, a “Healer and Sex Therapist.” He makes himself welcome in the little town and sets up a clinic announcing Holistic Healing in Eastern and Western Discipline. At the request of the town priest, he removes the reference to being a sex therapist from his card. His first patient is a nun who, after the treatment marvels that “her energy was prodigal, a wildness such as she had not known since her youth.” Vlad becomes a part of the town’s community, taking students on nature walks and participating in the local book club and poetry readings. “His name is on everybody’s lips, Dr. Vlad this and Dr. Vlad that. He has done wonders for people, women claiming to be rejuvenated.”
Vlad’s clinic is located in what had been a boutique owned by beautiful Fidelma. Fidelma and her significantly older husband Jack agree to lease the space to Vlad “because the new doctor’s praises were increasingly hailed.” Fidelma’s marriage to Jack is not a happy one and they have been unable to have children. Fidelma eventually takes up with Vlad and becomes pregnant with his child.
The town has a five star hotel known as The Castle, where most of the workers are from somewhere else and share their stories of escape and trouble. All except Mujo, who is described as mute. When the castle has two major functions, Mujo refuses to do his job because the man at Table 17 is a bad man “who has done evil”.
Vlad’s identity becomes known when a bus hired to take the book club to Ben Bulben for a poetry reading brakes suddenly and two uniformed guards board and approach Vlad asking for identification. He is arrested and removed from the bus, ultimately identified and sent to The Hague, to be indicted for crimes that included genocide, ethnic cleansing, massacres, tortures and more.
Fidelma leaves Jack and moves to London, where she learns about the trials and tribulations of a variety of immigrants who have fled their countries due to poverty, intolerance, violence and/or fear, seeking safety and better opportunities. Many of the people she meets through The Centre, a place where refugees gather to talk and tell their stories. She goes to The Hague to observe Vlad’s trial, and to confront him about their romantic past. Through that extremely difficult experience, she learns of the historical conflict in Bosnia and all the horrors he inflicted, and that he truly has no conscience. Her life in London and her experience at the trial teach her about ethnic and racial intolerance and hatred.
A lot happens in this relatively short book, which ends with a Christmas performance at The Centre of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where the word “Home” is symbolically sung and chanted in the thirty five different languages of the performers. “You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music can be wrung from it.”
This dark, yet hopeful and thought provoking book is worth reading, if not for its beauty and story, then as a reminder of the dangers of hatred based on ethnic, racial or religious intolerance. Edna O’Brien, along with Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin), will be at The William N Skirball Writers Center Stage, hosted by the Cuyahoga County Public Library Foundation, on Tuesday March 21, 2017. You can order tickets by clicking on http://www.cuyahogalibrary.org/Donate/Writers-Center-Stage.aspx
You can reserve The Little Red Chairs at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11180299__Sthe%20red%20chairs__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X2?lang=eng&suite=gold