Political monsters go beyond accepted codes of decency again and again and feel no remorse. If they are not caught, unmasked, or stopped cold, they will continue. They believe their power gives them the right to do as they wish to the powerless for “the wolf is entitled to the lamb.”*
Some are able to disguise themselves. They escape justice by relocating and fading in, by adopting a new identity, by shifting themselves into a new landscape — Mengele in Brazil, Eichmann in Argentina, Amin in Saudi Arabia. They attempt to remove their atrocities from their actions as easily as a man hangs up a hat. Often, their charisma remains, a self-assurance that gives them a compelling presence.
In The Little Red Chairs O’Brien brings us Fidelma, an Irish woman unhappy in her marriage and feeling trapped by the isolation and stifling codes of her village. She falls for a newly arrived emigrant, a large, quiet, courtly, self-proclaimed healer and poet, white-bearded as a patriarch, and a man adept in his guise, Doctor Vlad, a character modeled after Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and a war criminal responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths.
Vlad is capable of tenderness and genuine concern. He knows how to listen. That he could be the “Butcher of the Balkans” is unimaginable. He persuades a suspicious priest and police officer that he is incapable of harm, that he is benign.
When his disguise fails him (upon being recognized by a casualty of his cruelty who is working a party for a caterer), Fidelma’s life also implodes. After a terrible assault and a public shaming, she goes into exile in London, penniless, damaged, adrift. A refugee organization assists her and there she meets survivors of Vlad’s atrocities and hears their stories of torture, mass murder and rape and how they are now trying to put their lives back together. These men and women work menial jobs, and form a population of the invisible and disposable, but their compassion, perseverance and memories give them an individual humanity.
In a dream Fidelma confronts Vlad. She charges him with his crimes. She asks, “Do you have bad dreams, nightmares?” He says, “No…I sleep well…I dream well…I dream of women.” He believes himself to be a full human being. He sees himself in heroic terms and also as the victim of lies and conspiracies, but Fidelma wants to know “Was your essential nature always evil … were you ever innocent?” She does not receive an answer.
She struggles into a new life, one that is scarred and fragile but promising of solace and work.
Vlad performed his awful labor with the help of tens of thousands of his countrymen and women who drove out and murdered their own neighbors. I wonder if tyrants do not call out the cruelty already crouching within their supporters, if they do not give power to their resentments and thus justify their vengeance, if they discern how to foster their malice and ready it to be unleashed when someone finally gives them permission.
You should read this book.
*All quotations are from The Little Red Chairs.
**In Sarajevo in April of 2012, the 20th year since the siege of the city by Bosnian Serb forces had begun, “11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows” along the main street, “one for every Sarajevan killed” during its almost 4 year length; “643 small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and heavy artillery.”
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People evolve. People change. Not dramatically, but let’s face it, we all are much different than we were in college. At least I hope I am! We settle into new circumstances, surroundings, and relationships. In the book Modern Lovers by Emma Straub, the characters’ conflicts emerge because they cannot let go of their pasts. They are stuck. They never quite moved on from their glory days of college, despite being almost 50. Perhaps they could have moved on, but the old demons can’t fade away, because they remain in the relationships from the college years. What really cements them, though, is a song. As part of a semi-successful band they were a part of in college, one of the characters wrote a song which was immortalized as a timeless, one-hit-wonder classic. Decades later, Hollywood wants to recreate their college days in a movie featuring the song. They are torn about whether they want this to happen. It actually sounds great to me! Does someone want to make a movie about my life and give me boatloads of money for it (if I had done anything remotely interesting!)? I’m in! (May I please have Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Aniston, or Julia Roberts play me? I wish!) But with this crew, they continue to hold onto their pasts – and fret about their secrets – because of the possibility of it being recreated on the big screen. They all have little twists and mysteries from their histories, and from their current lives.
This book is very enjoyable and thoroughly modern, which I found so refreshing. As much as I love historical fiction and stories set in the past, I loved the current, Brooklyn-dwelling, non-traditional family characters in the book. The author allows the reader to become so comfortable with each of them, and has you rooting for a peaceful outcome for all. She captures all of the characters’ personalities carefully and with great humor, from the angst-filled, bitter teenager to the middle-aged moms. This is a really enjoyable read, and I definitely will be reading Emma Straub’s other books like The Vacationers, Other People We Married, and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop