Last month novelist Edna O’Brien was elected a Saoi in her native Ireland, alongside William Trevor; the honour means “wise one”, comes with a gold torc and has been previously held by such luminaries as Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. There are only seven Saoithe at any one time.
At Faber’s London offices, where she has been signing copies of her new book, O’Brien smiles self-deprecatingly at “wise one”—“God help us; what is wise to some is foolish to others”—but she admits she was pleased at what Ireland’s president Michael Higgins said when he presented her with the honour. He described O’Brien as a “fearless teller of truth” who has continued to write “undaunted, sometimes by culpable incomprehension, authoritarian hostility and sometimes downright malice”.
It is over half a century since O’Brien’s first three books, loosely called the Country Girls trilogy, were banned (and sometimes burned) in an Ireland outraged by their depiction of female sexuality. More recently the acclaim has outweighed the hostility, although there have been other controversies, as O’Brien tackled thorny themes of religion and politics. But O’Brien likes the “undaunted” description. Defying her years (at the age of 84), she says: “I think I am a perseverer—even still, I just want to write, to write better, to write deeper, to write stronger. It’s finding the energy . . . it’s not so easy.”
If for any reason she could not write, it would be “the most painful thing”, she says. “When I say I love writing, it’s too simplified to say it. The Little Red Chairs took three and a half years, and there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t thinking of it, or thinking through it, even when I wasn’t composing the words. That’s quite an anxious occupation; and yet I love it because I would be much more lonely and dissatisfied on earth if I didn’t have it.”
The Little Red Chairs, O’Brien’s first novel for 10 years, is a book with very dark subject matter and, fortuitously, an intense contemporary resonance in a year of refugees in crisis. The title refers to the 643 small, red, empty chairs that were laid out on a Sarajevo high street in April 2012, to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of the city by Bosnian Serb forces; each chair represented one of the children killed by snipers or heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.
The book opens in the quiet Irish town of Cloonoila, where the arrival of a charismatic foreigner, Dr Vladimir Dragan, who sets himself up as a healer and sex therapist, agitates the community. Particularly intrigued is local woman Fidelma McBride, stalwart of the book club, married to an older man, childless and yearning for a baby. The two begin an affair. But Vladimir is no healer, he is concealing an appalling past as a war criminal, a mass murderer from the Balkans. Before too long the past catches up with him, with catastrophic consequences for Fidelma too.
In measured cadences, weighing her words, O’Brien explains: “We live in a world in which it is no longer possible to ignore or be unmindful of what’s happening in the world. Information is everywhere: on the television, in the newspapers, so nothing escapes us now. I have always been mystified by the denial, the utter denying, of despots and dictators down the years— whether Stalin, Hitler, Robert Mugabe, whoever it be. Terrible things are done, and without any admission of culpability for having done those things. I have always found that terrible. Trying to imaginatively go into the psyche of one of those men—because they all happen to be men—was one thing [I wanted to do].
“Equally important for me was the spiralling effect of what a war or a siege or a massacre in one place has on many places: it affects the protagonists who are in it and spirals out from that, refugees having to leave their countries, families broken up.”
She thinks of writing as a kind of “Jacob’s ladder”: when she started writing, her subject was the world of the country girls, “religion, repression, wildness”; she made “a bit of a leap” when she started writing about other Irish themes in Down by the River (1996), loosely based on the so-called X Case, in which the Irish Attorney General attempted to prevent a raped 14-year-old from having an abortion in England, or The House of Splendid (1994), ”about the war as it affected Ireland, the war within Ireland”. The new novel is one step further, she says: “I thought for a long time before writing The Little Red Chairs. I wanted, in my own way, through imagination and research and a kind of empathy with human catastrophe, to make some sense—by that, to make a work of fiction—of some aspects of life going on around me in the present time, or in the past 10 or 20 years.”
A quote from Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile prefaces the book: “An individual is no match for history.” O’Brien says: “That was, if you like, my guide, my mantra, in taking on this story of a woman who meets a man whom she thinks is a healer, who is not a healer, is a killer—but has both the aspect of healing and charm and if you like mesmerisation, and the other aspect of slaughter.”
When Vladimir’s past is revealed, Fidelma becomes an outcast and leaves Ireland for London, working first as a night cleaner. O’Brien is not interested in the London as presented in the media—“newspapers are all either full of bile or glamour or football; people want to read about some awful party where someone behaved foolishly”—but instead presents a less visible side to the city, occupied by “those who hide and cower, those who work at night, the ghosts”.
A refugee centre also becomes an important part of The Little Red Chairs; O’Brien did some research, conducted some interviews, for this aspect of the book. “I’m not a normal researcher. I don’t have a tape recorder, but it’s to get the feel of something or someone. It’s amazing, when you talk to people about predicaments they have been through, how generous they are in telling their story—and how particular. They are not generalised ever, they tell you one thing. Each person will tell you one thing, and it’s that thing that gives [the relation of the experience] its reality, because that’s story.”
There’s a moment in The Little Red Chairs when Fidelma finds a bed for the night for a refugee couple and their children, a family with pieces of duvet wrapped around their feet for shoes. It reads: “That one night to them, on that floor, was home. Then on the morrow, up and off, and before night footsore and weary, craving the valleys and small instances of mercy.”
“What I see about a huge proportion of the world, that is all they have: a guarantee for one night. And craving the valleys and the small instances of mercy,” reflects O’Brien. “And that is why the world around us, the authoritarian, political world, is so cruelly lacking in any compassion. Only what yields money or might yield money, is welcomed—and that’s a sad destination for human nature. There is a wonderful line years ago I read in a great play [‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’] by J M Singh, where Deirdre says: ‘All a person needs is a safe and splendid place.’ It’s a very true line, and I think if you were writing it today, you would remove the word ‘splendid’.”
She adds in her unassuming way: “I don’t want to sound pretentious. It’s just another book and I know that, I have no grandiose notions . . . It’s only infinitesimal to what could and should be written. Poetry makes nothing happen. But one can reach people, at least— they are alone but not totally alone.”
Picture: Getty Images/Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert