People talk about “late style” in classical music, but what might “late style” in contemporary fiction look like? In late work by Muriel Spark, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, William Golding, and now Edna O’Brien, you can detect a certain impatience with formal or generic proprieties; a wild, dark humor; a fearlessness in assertion and argument; a tonic haste in storytelling, so that the usual ground-clearing and pacing and evidentiary process gets accelerated or discarded altogether, as if it were (as it so often can be) mere narrative palaver that is stopping us from talking about what really matters. In much of that late work, there is a slightly thinned atmosphere, the prose a little less rich and hospitable than previously, the characters less full or persuasive, a general sense of dimmed surplus—but not in Edna O’Brien’s astonishing new novel, “The Little Red Chairs” (Little, Brown), her seventeenth. O’Brien is eighty-five years old, and praising this novel for its ambition, its daring vitality, its curiosity about the present age and about the lives of those displaced by its turbulence shouldn’t be mistaken for the backhanded compliment that all this is remarkable given the author’s advanced age. It’s simply a remarkable novel.
“The Little Red Chairs,” though thick with life, does indeed exhibit the kind of cussed freedom that one associates with longevity, and with long confidence in artistic practice. It mixes and reinvents inherited forms, blithely shifts from third-person to first-person narration, reproduces dreams and dramatic monologues. It’s a realist novel—almost a historical novel—about a Bosnian Serb war criminal, modelled on Radovan Karadžić, who has escaped international detection and has arrived in Cloonoila, an obscure little Irish town. (The novel’s title comes from a commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Serbian siege, when thousands of red chairs, representing the victims, were arrayed in Sarajevo’s main street, including many hundreds of small ones for the children.) In Cloonoila, he begins a new life of subterfuge, as Dr. Vladimir Dragan, “Healer and Sex Therapist.” In this broadly realist mode, O’Brien pays sympathetic attention to many different lives, from ordinary Irish villagers (the priest, the nun, the draper’s wife) to refugees, migrants, and displaced workers in London.
But her novel is also a piece of mythmaking, which begins like a tale from Irish folklore: one winter evening, a stranger arrives in town, “bearded and in a long dark coat and white gloves.” People later report “strange occurrences on that same winter evening; dogs barking crazily, as if there was thunder, and the sound of the nightingale.” O’Brien can sound like the László Krasznahorkai of “The Melancholy of Resistance,” a lawless and fantastical novel about the arrival, in a small Hungarian town, of a semi-criminal band of circus hands. In this mythical or magical mode, she is not ashamed to serve up a measure of novelistic Irish cliché (the priest, the nun, the draper’s wife), mixing it with bitter contemporary reality: the young Polish, Czech, Slovakian, and Bosnian exiles who work as service staff at the Castle, the town’s posh hotel.
As fairy tale, O’Brien’s novel is both harrowing and absurdly funny: what will this provincial community make of the glamorous impostor who says he is from Montenegro? How will Father Damien, the local priest, deal with the pastoral offerings of the Serbian Orthodox New Age sex therapist? The story hovers between recorded history and green fancy, and ends as theatrically as it began, with a description of an amateur production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Reading this book, marbled with its different generic veins, is not always a straightforward or stable journey; some parts are more convincing or affecting than others. But it is always a vital and engrossing experience.
It has been fifty-six years since the notorious publication of O’Brien’s first novel, “The Country Girls,” and it’s easy, when a writer has become part of the fabric of one’s life, to stop noticing how that fabric, once scandalously abrasive, still rubs against the skin. “I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women,” she writes, in her story “A Scandalous Woman.” Her novels of the nineteen-sixties, once censored by fearful Irish authorities for their frank depictions of sex and female desire, no longer scandalize, but they have retained their deeper, authentic radicalism: they commit themselves to exploring the lives of women as gambles on freedom and acts of rebellion—against the prohibitions of religion, the judgment of petty societies, the close disapproval of mothers, the expectations of marriage and parenthood, and the carelessness or indifference, or worse, of men.
It is a large, bold, and very various collection of novels and stories; the new novel is surely as good as anything O’Brien has written. I had forgotten what a funny, colloquial writer she can be, and how quickly and tartly she can animate a minor character or the fragment of a life. She has a brilliant ear for offhand description, the kind that immediately situates us in a location, or in a consciousness. One of the townspeople of Cloonoila is glancingly introduced as “Fifi, who was a bit of a card from her time in Australia,” a phrase that might seem like nothing much but that instantly summarizes a community’s world view, precisely because the imputation is never explained: Australia just equals oddity.
A good deal of O’Brien’s prose naturally falls into a loose and chatty free indirect discourse, edging comically (in good Irish literary fashion) toward stream of consciousness. Here is Sister Bonaventure, who travels around the area doing good works:
She and three other nuns now lived in one wing of the old convent, the major part having been sold off for a school, and as she put it, quoting from scripture, The sparrow hath her house and so they settled in. Faithfully each day, unless she happened to be gallivanting, she was able to get her school lunch for three euros, the same price as the children paid; meat or fish with a vegetable, potatoes, boiled or mashed and what more did anybody want. She never drank. She had seen the harm and the woes that drink wreaked, families torn apart and farms auctioned off for half of nothing. So as to set a good example, she wore her total abstinence pioneer badge on her lapel. . . . She wore a navy skirt, navy jumper, black stockings and good strong black shoes for the journeys she made to isolated places, up by roads and bog roads, where she wouldn’t dare risk her little Mini, her chariot of freedom.
O’Brien tumbles into her characters’ voices; the prose has a life-filled, unstopping locomotion: “her little Mini, her chariot of freedom.”
As the book opens and develops, we encounter several people from Cloonoila, and see how each falls for the charms of Dr. Dragan. Dara, the young man who runs the local pub, is intimidated and dazzled; Fifi is won over, and agrees to rent out her spare room to the mysterious visitor; Father Damien, at first professionally skeptical, is quickly seduced; Sister Bonaventure visits Dr. Dragan’s office as a patient, and receives the holistic massage of her life (a charmingly hilarious scene); and Fidelma, the beautiful, frustrated younger wife of the local draper, takes the advertisement literally, and begins an affair with the sex therapist. Fidelma is not really in love with Dr. Dragan. At forty, and after two miscarriages, she is desperate to have a child, and reckons that its source will not be her husband, Jack, who is in his sixties, and who “did the crosswords and then sat staring out, the pink of his scalp so scaly under the thinning white hair and his eyes had a kind of rebuke in them.” With compact lyricism—a strange mixture of the straightforward and the poetic—O’Brien gives us a swift picture of Fidelma’s anguish:
Twice in her married life she was pregnant and Jack bought her pieces of jewellery, but she lost it both times, and believing the failure to be hers, she grieved alone. One summer Jack booked a holiday in Italy and everywhere they went, she kept seeing paintings of the Nativity, mother and child depicted in such sumptuous colours, their expressions so serene, adhering to one another, and she found, when they came out into the hot street, with awnings over shops shut for lunch, that there were tears in her eyes and down her cheeks.
Gradually, the novel becomes Fidelma’s. Though not without her suspicions about Dragan’s murky past, she gets pregnant by him. And when Dragan is finally captured, and the townspeople are forced to reckon with their foolish beguilement, her secret emerges. Someone was already on to her, anyway: Fidelma finds “Where Wolves Fuck” daubed on the sidewalk in front of Dragan’s clinic.
What is extraordinary and unsettling about O’Brien’s novel is the way that it begins in an atmosphere of something approaching pastoral comedy, and steadily darkens as we become acquainted with the buried but unrepressed war crimes of the town’s resident trickster. It is like watching a blush turn into the red of murderous fury: it seems impossible that the same mild medium could be so brutally weaponized. But O’Brien has long been interested in how women are punished for their sins, or suffer for their innocence—the divergent readings often dependent on who is doing the judging.
Some of her female characters can be seen, to adapt the title of one of her novels, as casualties of peace; Fidelma becomes a casualty of war and peace. After Dragan has been outed and captured, Fidelma is seized by three men, former allies of Dragan’s but now bitter foes. They brutally violate Fidelma and her unborn child, viewing her and her baby as the spoils of war. (The scene is almost unbearably visceral.) Fidelma slowly recovers, but it is clear that, as the suddenly infamous lover of “the beast of Bosnia,” she cannot remain in Cloonoila. Rejected by her husband and her community, she travels to London, homeless, broken, and almost penniless.
Thus “The Little Red Chairs” naturally falls into two halves—Ireland and London—and develops in unexpected ways. Instead of suspending the question of Vladimir Dragan’s identity over the whole book, as plenty of novelists might have done, O’Brien turns away from Dragan to Fidelma. In doing so, she also turns away from the specificities of the Bosnian war (though she later returns to them). The book shifts from perpetrators to victims. In London, Fidelma finds herself living and working among people whose journeys resemble Dragan’s—flight, exile, reinvention—except that their displacement has come at the hands of men like Dragan. In a gesture of penitence, Fidelma spends time at an advice center for migrants and refugees run by Varya, who lived through the siege of Sarajevo. Fidelma finds work as a cleaner, in a bank, working between eight at night and six in the morning. She joins those defenseless armies we glimpse at night, distanced from us by thick plate glass, inaudible and unknowable in their tedious labor.
But the novelist notices such people, and can try, however imperfectly, to render them less unknowable. There are magnificent passages in this section of the book, as O’Brien patiently brings to life the stories and histories, the terrors and hopes of London’s population of exiles, immigrants, and indentured visitors. Maria, for instance, who cleans alongside Fidelma, and who lives for the tango:
Maria, who went about her tasks with great zeal, because everything mattered, even the most menial thing. That was her philosophy, that and the rapture of the tango. Maria believed that one night and enigmatically, a tall man, a big boss in the bank, would appear and with a kindred intention, they would glide down the corridor and break into tango. It was not a dream as she said, it was a fairy tale and in their predicament, fairy tales were crucial.
O’Brien sees banal details and lingers over them, viewing them in the shadow of warfare and forced emigration, so that they are no longer banal. She tells us how quickly the workers leave the building when they are released: “In the mornings, after they had clocked out, they ran, recklessly, they ran as if they were fleeing catastrophes. The fear that governed their whole lives was now compressed into this urgency to catch a bus or a train to allow a husband or a mother or a cousin to go to work.” Fidelma is lonely in London, where the Thames has a strange “toffee colour, not like the silvery rivers of home.” Her fellow-workers, like her, long for home; like her, they cannot return. But they carry memories, “and the essence of their first place, known only to them.” (A beautiful phrase!) For Fidelma, Ireland is now becoming a memory, “such a small memory, young grass with the morning sun on it and the night’s dew, so that light and water interplayed as in a prism and the top leaves of an ash tree had a halo of diamond from the rain, the surrounding green so safe, so ample, so all-encompassing.”
Fidelma gradually becomes less of a stranger in London. But the cost of that familiarity may be her growing estrangement from home, from her “first place”—a familiar enough Irish tale. Yet if “The Little Red Chairs” is obviously about displacement and immigration, obviously about the toll of war and its murderers and victims, it is also about how the tentacles of globalization reach everywhere, even into the corners of provincial Ireland. Traditional Cloonoila, secure in its histrionic embeddedness, is a tale that can be told again and again, offering up its comic traditions for the Irish storyteller. But, alongside the priest and the postmistress, the nun and the draper’s wife, there are the young Europeans who work at the Castle. They have little, if anything, to do with the traditional cast of Irish characters. As Fidelma has to make her uncertain way in London, they have had to make their uncertain way in Ireland. Among their number is an almost mute worker named Mujo, who seems to have been wounded into silence by some terrible tribulation. Mujo, we learn, is short for Muhammad. And it is Mujo who fatefully recognizes Dragan, when, one evening, he chances to go to the hotel for dinner; it is Mujo who knows Dragan from a previous life, knows him to be a “beast.” Before the celebrated fugitive from justice arrived in Cloonoila came the poor fugitive from injustice. ♦
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