Reading Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs

Since beginning the PhD, I have been unable to read fiction – I’m told it takes 6 months to a year to recover, to clear the system. I have also found writing, creatively, almost impossible. But I have just picked up Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs, a story about a stranger coming to a little Irish village, a mysterious, compelling stranger, a Rasputin-type, a long-haired healer from Montenegro. Slowly the enamoured village learns who he is. I heard O’BRien on Writers and Company discussing the book and its naissance in her reading of how when Serb war criminal Radovan Cerovic was captured he had long hair, a bushy beard and had been in hiding for over a dozen years posing as a doctor of alternate medicine (he wore a man bun). The wolf in hippy clothing (though it is unfair to wolves to compare them to mass murderer).
The little red chairs of the title refers to the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, during which time red chairs were put on display, one for each of the 11,541 killed in the 1,425 days of siege (almost FOUR years of siege). Of these red chairs, 643 were little red chairs – one for each child killed during this period. Cultural genocide against the Bosnian Muslims. Against the little children.
All of this calls to mind the experience of my guardian angel, P I’ll call him, who was a Canadian peacekeeper in Bosnia at the end of the war. P, who is a peer-support counsellor for veterans affairs looks after me, checks up on me and other civilians he knows who have been exposed to war, even though he doesn’t have to because as a civilian (non-combatant) it’s assumed we don’t suffer. P was a clerk, a non-combatant, and yet he suffered/suffers terrible PTSD. “Who’d think a clerk could get PTSD?” he said to me. (I know how now, believe me, and civilians and reporters and war artists…). P’s job in Bosnia was to work with the evidence-gathering teams for the war crimes trials that would come to the Hague. His work entailed the registering of exhumed bodies from the mass graves. Describing, taking any form of anything that could lead to identification etc., logging each and every detail (I’m not sure how good database programs were back then – pretty primitive).
Well one of the things P had to do was to walk through the Bosnian forests with the evidence gathering teams. As he did so he walked through leaves and stepped on twigs that snapped underfoot. Except they weren’t twigs, they were little children’s rib bones. To this day P cannot walk through forests. He avoids them. Even our beautiful peaceful west coast Canadian forests. He cannot stand the sound of a twig breaking underfoot because not only was he horrified that the bones belonged to little ones, but also he had young children at the time of this terrible job and he could not stand the imagining of their suffering had they lived in Bosnia – but he did imagine it. Thus his illness that carries on decades later.
I remember the war trials, and I remember the terrible times. I remember writing a major article in 1991, while living in Denmark, for the now-defunct newspaper, The European, and asking Europe wtf is with their sitting back and not engaging with trying to diffuse the situation in the Balkans, to peace keep in other words. The editor spiked the article with a note saying, basically, “What do you know about anything, you’re a North American”. Then I remember the filthy racism of a second generation Canadian whose provenance came from that region – a fellow Master’s student – who reached back into the disgustingly long memory of perceived victimhood and how she justified the slaughter of the Bosnian war. A middle-class, comfy Canadian.
Last week, just a few hours before the performance of Jeffrey Ryan and my Requiem at the Orpheum in Vancouver, I received an email from an Afghan woman who had  heard us being interviewed on the CBC the day before. She had come to Canada as a refugee of 12 years of age. All alone. She came on some sort of scholarship – amazing! – aimed at developing young refugees. She went on to university and became a practising physician, a specialist. In her letter she thanked me for remembering the children of war in our Req. She also spoke of children’s resilience. But also of the lifelong struggle that comes with the experience of war. The continued fears in one’s bones. Literally.
So often in this life as a creative one feels it is useless, or worse, destructive to one’s sense of self to practice one’s art. Especially as a poet. A few years back, defending myself legally (no details needed other than to know it was pernicious, specious, utterly destructive and not just to myself), I had to hear myself being typified by a rich woman lawyer for the other side (a de facto prosecutor) as one whose work is and has been meaningless and is in fact a luxury, not a REAL JOB. I have to fight this belief frequently, still, that is until I receive a letter from an Afghan woman who thanks me for my work, who thanks me for remembering the children of war in our Requiem. And then I pick up the maestra Edna O’Brien’s book The Little Red Chairs and I read her re-imagining of the charisma of evil as the Radovan Karadzic-like character enters the lives of a little Irish village, and one woman’s life in particular.
And I use the word ‘re-imagining’ rather cautiously, as O’Brien, like most artists of stature, has done her research – poring over the war trial records, interviewing people, visiting the sites etc. O’Brien’s work reminds me that no amount of reportage, non-fiction articles and books, documentaries etc. can ever bring such empathy, such inquiry into how wickedness can walk this earth. Especially the work of someone the stature and mastery as O’Brien whose every sentence is beautiful, powerful, seducing. Reading The Little Red Chairs reinforces my belief that tho war trials can bring some justice, there is something in artistic masterpiece that can bring some higher sense of justice – a bearing of spiritual witness, and possible redemption. Certainly for those who survive, it reminds them that their experiences have been real, and are remembered.