- The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
Faber, 320 pp, £18.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 31628 1
Like many marginal nations, Ireland has leapt from being a largely agricultural society to one of high-tech finance capitalism, information technology and the service industries. Rural drama has given way to Riverdance, and Lady Gregory to Martin McDonagh. The passage from the premodern to the postmodern, partly eclipsing modernity proper, was smoothed by the fact that Ireland had no industrial infrastructure to dismantle. You can go postindustrial all the more easily if you never had much heavy plant apart from the Guinness factory.
To lag behind the modern means that at a certain point you can bound ahead of it, converting yourself from a provider of foodstuffs and cheap labour to the colonialists to an easy-touch haven for international investment. In bypassing some of the burdens of the modern, however, one misses out on a number of its benefits. There are no gunboats to invade overseas territories. Nobody feels alienated and anomic among the urban masses. But neither is there much in the way of liberal democracy, secular ethics, a skilled, politically conscious working class, suburban amenities or abstract expressionism.
This time-warped situation is reflected in the dominant political current of traditional Ireland: nationalism. Nations are fairly recent contrivances, but the ideology of the movements which fight to establish them is generally a mixture of the archaic and the avant-garde. In seeking an independent future for the people, romantic nationalism turns its gaze to a mythologised past, as Cuchulain stalks at Patrick Pearse’s side. The colonial past is to be squeezed out by a conjuncture of the very old and the unimaginably new, like the two interleaved texts, one modern and the other Homeric, of Ulysses.
The more dewy-eyed forms of nationalism are among other things surrogates for religion. Like the Almighty, the nation is one, sacred, autonomous, self-grounding, without end or origin, a source of eternal life, deserving of veneration and well worth dying for. Irish nationalism tended by and large to strike uneasy alliances with an enormously powerful church rather than seek to counter its influence; but in Ireland today neither nationalism nor church is in conspicuously good shape, and the vacuum they have left behind is being filled (among other things) by New Ageism. In Galway town, hippies in search of the ancient wisdom traditionally symbolised by the west rub shoulders with the profit-hungry executives of IT companies. In the age of advanced capitalism, Ireland is silting up with commodified Celticism, druidic kitsch and Tipperary-style touchy-feelyism. Like nationalism, New Ageism is at once antique and up to date, an immensely lucrative modern industry peddling an exotic past. It is both a sleek product of the postindustrial age and a reaction to its crassly materialist values. The Irish, who were put on this earth for other people to feel romantic about, are adept at selling their souls, pulling in gullible tourists with their gusto and geniality, and the kitsch and touchy-feelyism are simply the latest manifestations of this profitable industry.
It is fitting, then, that one of the two main characters of Edna O’Brien’s new novel, her first for ten years, is a bogus shaman with more than a faint resemblance to the post-genocidal Radovan Karadžić. Dr Vladimir Dragan, a Montenegrin holy man with white hair, a white beard and a long black coat, descends on a small town in the west of Ireland and sets up as a healer, mystic, masseur and general supplier of spiritual goods. Like a latter-day Playboy of the Western World, he proves both vitalising and disruptive. Fidelma McBride, a young local woman who runs a clothes boutique, has an affair with this charismatic stranger which culminates in a sexual violation so horrific that language threatens to break beneath it. Exiled to England and estranged from her increasingly unhinged husband, she falls in with a cosmopolitan crew of refugees, each with his or her own harrowing tale, and ekes out a precarious living in a London underworld of casual labour and cheap rented properties.
This, too, is in its own way a conjuncture of past and present. As an emigrant to Britain, Fidelma re-enacts one of the most legendary of Irish customs; but her flight from her homeland merges with a more contemporary issue, that of those uprooted from their native lands not by famine, moral bigotry or unemployment but by a political violence for which the West must bear a high degree of responsibility. There is a clear line from the fall of the Twin Towers to the invasion of Muslim territories, the social and political disruption of the Middle East and the desperate men, women and children now milling at the Hungarian border.
Dr Vlad, like the war criminal on whom he is modelled, is a poet, given to waxing lyrical over slender, majestic bullets and strapping wolves descending from the hills; and part of his fascination for the writer must lie in this sinister combination of murder and metaphor-spinning. How can lofty works of the spirit coexist with forcing a man at gunpoint to bite off the testicles of another? How could the commandants of the concentration camps curl up in the evenings with a volume of classical verse? Is culture merely a sublimation of barbarism? Is it an authentic source of value even if (as Walter Benjamin considered) its roots were to be found in wretchedness and exploitation, or do its cloistered refinements fatally weaken our sensitivity to more mundane matters, insulating us from common or garden compassion even as they intensify our emotional life? Does a novel or poem about atrocities stir sympathies which are enfeebled by the distance involved in the act of reading?
There is another problem as well. What if the evil that Vlad signifies eludes representation? Is there a syntax capable of portraying such vileness, or does it finally beggar speech? If it does, it is not because its depravity blisters the tongue. It is rather because it belongs to that rare class of phenomena which are autotelic, bearing their raison d’être entirely within themselves. The most celebrated item in this category is God himself; but if evil is an inverted mirror-image of his goodness, it is because it, too, is self-grounding and self-validating. Pure evil delights in destruction simply for the hell of it, 0r because only the act of annihilating others lends it a grisly parody of life. Things which are autotelic are peculiarly enigmatic, and thus hard to represent. Actions which seem shorn of a motive are bound to be baffling.
One might claim that Karadžić was not evil, since his monstrous acts were performed for a purpose, whatever sadistic relish he may have reaped from them. This is not to let him off the hook. Wiping out millions of individuals for a twisted political end, as Hitler, Stalin and Mao did, is a lot worse than what the Moors murderers got up to, simply on numerical grounds, even if the Moors murderers were evil in the technical sense. Even if Karadžić was not strictly speaking evil, however, Vlad certainly is, which might account for a certain ambiguity in O’Brien’s portrayal of him. On the one hand, he is a genuinely disturbing presence, all the more so because he brings with him the sense of something strong, rich and deep. On the other hand, the book never really shows him from the inside, so that the reason Fidelma falls for him so swiftly (and relatively silently) is unexplored. She seems to know him no better than we do. In this sense, the events that trigger the entire narrative of horror, flight and their turbulent aftermath seem curiously elusive and undeveloped. When Dr Vlad does finally speak of his bloodstained past, in a prison interview with Fidelma, it is in a fairly standard mode of self-rationalisation.
There is, then, something forcefully real about Vlad’s portrayal, but also some strange touches of unreality. Would anyone hoping to scrape even a modest living really set up shop as a mystic masseur in a small, straitlaced Irish town? It seems too palpable a narrative device. Would a nun, even a relatively emancipated one, present herself as his first client, stripping to her knickers while allowing him to seek out ‘the various knots and nodules and cricks’ of her body and place healing stones on her stomach? Would she really have felt so wildly energised by the encounter that she pisses unashamedly out in the open? Does nobody suspect that this newcomer spouting about the Upanishads and gathering seaweed for his cures may be a fraud?
The Little Red Chairs contains passages of great lyrical power, along with some delicate perceptions of the natural world. A foal is ‘losing her nice biscuit colour and was more khaki now’. We read of ‘surfers in black, with the stealth of seals, far out, seen and not seen in the troughs of the waves’. A robin sports its ‘little plump terracotta chest and … suede-brown wings’. Crocuses poke their green snouts through the clay, while a couple of swans are so sedate that they seem made of china. There is also, however, some stage-foreigner monologuing, as well as a tendency to veer from present to past tense for no very obvious reason. We are also treated to an embarrassingly bad sexual-cum-therapeutic encounter between Vlad and Fidelma, in the course of which he runs a hot mocha stick over her vertebrae and dangles a pendulum over her. Roused by this behaviour, uncommon in small-town Ireland, Fidelma ‘held his beard and wagged it, as she had so often done in her imagination, fingering it like it was flake tobacco’.
The second part of the novel, set mostly in London, is gripping but somewhat shapeless. Bravely, the story ends on a quasi-utopian note, as a community of refugees chant the word ‘home’ in 35 different languages. In the face of callow postmodern affirmations of the decentred self, not to speak of those Irish commentators who despise any form of nostalgia as pathological, O’Brien pays homage to this entirely honourable impulse. The men and women who give vent to it have just been performing a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the end of which ‘wrongs were righted, true love and its virtuous properties restored. Nuptials were celebrated, twine rings exchanged, and packets of rice wantonly thrown on the heads of the eternally betrothed.’ It is an audacious novelist indeed who can celebrate such age-old comic contentment without fear of being thought saccharine, just as it takes some courage for her uprooted characters to smile and sing in the teeth of their plight.