Novelist Edna O'Brien Explores the True Nature of Evil

Love and Evil. Two great mysteries that have obsessed the greatest writers and thinkers for as long as people have thought and written. For a long time Edna O’Brien, the celebrated Irish-born, London-dwelling writer, has been known as one of the literary world’s great chroniclers of love. Of love and longing and the desperate lives of souls in the pitiless grip of passion and doomed elation. A beautiful writer who has always been able to find beauty in life, even in despair. Some have likened her to Chekhov; others have compared her to James Joyce in his early Portrait of the Artist phase.

But in her latest novel, The Little Red Chairs, O’Brien shifts from love to evil. A wild and ambitious leap that takes us behind the headlines and home screens of the most tragic world news—war crimes, refugees, genocide—and which may garner her the Nobel Prize that she’s often been mentioned for and long deserved.

It just so happens that her new novel was published in America just a few days after the bang of a gavel in the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. The evil character she’d written about in thin disguise, Radovan Karadzic—a.k.a. the Beast of Bosnia—had been found guilty of war crimes and genocide for ordering the mass murder of more than 7,000 mostly Muslim men and boys in 1995, an act that brought the terrifying term “ethnic cleansing” into common use. He was found guilty, too, of ordering the deadly shelling of women, children and civilian noncombatants in the years-long siege of Sarajevo, a thriving city Karadzic turned into a graveyard. Guilty as well of participating in a horde that committed horrific up-close and personal acts of torture, rape and mutilation.

She is 85, a bit frail, but one of those women whose perfect manners, executed with subtle grace, give her an unexpected power. Despite surface delicacy, Edna O’Brien radiates a fierce and feminine energy, the kind of inextinguishably vibrant beauty that had suitors such as Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum and Richard Burton following her wild red tresses through London in the swinging ’60s and ’70s.
“What did you think of the verdict?” I asked her when we were seated.
“I was overjoyed. So were my Bosnian friends. They kept sending me messages. ‘In two more minutes! In one more minute!’”
“Were you surprised?”
“When I went to The Hague the last time, two years ago, Karadzic seemed very happy, very sure he’d be acquitted. The day of the sentence, it was different. I watched it on English television. And as the sentence was read out very slowly by the [South] Korean judge, I thought, ‘All I wish to do is to get inside that brain for two seconds to see what he’s thinking.’”
“That really is what your novel is about, isn’t it, trying to get inside the monster’s brain?”
“Trying to get inside the brain and understanding why he would never, ever admit to [his crimes]. And never, ever show [remorse]. Well, they do go insane eventually—but not soon enough.”
It is a paradox of evil that stretches back at least as far as Socrates, who opined in one of his dialogues that no one commits evil knowing they are doing wrong—evildoers think they are doing the right thing. O’Brien can’t abide that, or the psychological exculpation it offers.
She earned her steely attitude toward Karadzic the hard way: In researching the novel, she spent years hearing the stories of his victims and survivors. The name of the book, The Little Red Chairs, is taken from a commemoration of the start of the siege of Sarajevo. Eleven thousand five hundred and forty one red chairs were set out on the main street in the city—each one empty—one for every Sarajevan killed during the siege. “Six hundred and forty three small chairs,” her epigraph notes, “represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.” There is a flood of emotion welling beneath every page of the book. “A lot of tears in that waterfall” is how she puts it.
What gets to her, in her novel and in life, is Karadzic’s refusal to admit he knew what he was doing was evil. “That interested me greatly,” she said coolly. “Is the person born like that? Or does the person become like that? And I don’t think, and I said so in one chapter, that he’s mad.”
“I remember a passage where Fidelma [the unfortunate female protagonist] goes back and forth between blaming him as Lucifer or explaining his evil as the result of insanity.”
“Is it fooling people?” she asked. “To say that they don’t quite know what they are doing? I think he calculated that. It could have been about Hitler or Joseph Stalin or [West African dictator] Charles Taylor. They’re all similar. They do not have the [remorse] gene. They only have, ‘I am a hero, I am a martyr, I am fighting for my people.’ That’s their truth.”
“Was there a moment when you decided you needed to write about this?”
“The impetus to write was twofold. I saw Karadzic taken off the bus in Europe [when he was captured in 2008] on CNN. And there was this formerly strutting man, you know, the soldier of great size. But he’d been on the run for 12 years and there he was transformed to looking like Moses or a Russian holy man. Long black garb, a pendant, crystals.”

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