The Little Red Chairs
By Edna O’Brien
A stranger arrives in a village in Ireland. Charismatic and exotic, he sets himself up as a ‘healer’ and soon ingratiates himself with the villagers. One woman in particular, Fidelma, falls under his charm and her infatuation has devastating consequences. Her anguish and personal humiliation are made many times worse when she discovers his real identity. Although that identity is clear quite early in the novel it is the climax of Fidelma’s story.
In London she meets a collection of other traumatised and damaged people, and their stories and her own interweave.
I found the novel disturbing, awesome in the real sense of the word. It is thought provoking and has much to say about hatred, nationalism, violence, trust, victim-hood and the interwoven nature of history. The subject matter makes it impossible to use the word ‘enjoy’ in connection with the reading of this book. This would be true even if all the characters were creations of the author, but here a ‘real’ person from recent history is placed at the centre of a fictional story, in a place he never visited.
I am left unsure whether the writer thinks that he was judged harshly, whether I am supposed to understand that he was simply the person in a particular place at a particular time and ultimately a victim of circumstance. Given the heightened emotional frenzy of a war situation are we supposed to conclude that the writer thinks that almost any man could have done what he did? Sadly, history shows how often this happens but by making the main character a real person she was forced to show him as he was at the end. Ordinary persons brutalised by the horror war are capable of atrocities. I believe it is overwhelming fear that causes them to lose all control and do whatever it takes to feel dominant. Once that barrier is passed they know, at some level that they have no right to expect any mercy should their enemies prevail and so the frenzy is fed. But normal people who survive that experience feel ashamed afterwards when they realise how far they have gone. Had a fictional person been the central character of the book it would have been possible to make him remorseful, a tormented soul wandering in search of redemption through the ancient texts he seemed to have studied and through helping others. That would have been a very different book. This man was unrepentant to the end, claiming he should have been hailed as a hero! His behaviour was not the result of frenzied patriotism, it was psychopathic. Did he believe his own propaganda or did he just want to escape responsibility for his crimes against humanity?
Despite the careful, skilfully crafted prose I found the book difficult to read. I was not charmed by the Beast at any point. I felt that I was being ‘set up’. Was the purpose of making him enigmatic and exotic, attractive to the ladies of the village, supposed to make it even more shocking when we found out who he was? If so it did not work, partly because there are too many clues, too soon, making the reader uneasy from the start about who he was. I found it more sickening than shocking.
I was shocked again by the horrors he was part of, and at myself for having ‘put away’ if not having actually forgotten this period. Perhaps having met some of his real victims was enough to make me too close to the history to engage with the story. The book seems to be a ‘ploy’ for looking at this period, the effects of absolute brutality on the survivors and an attempt to find a new perspective in order to diffuse our immediate prejudices and make us look again. But human nature makes it very hard to look closely and still find entertainment value in this story. We prefer to look away and pretend it has nothing to do with us! But by making the central character real the author has made them all ‘real’. Just as the little red chairs, laid out in the street to commemorate thousands of victims of a massacre are there to make them real.