Edna O’Brien: In the company of tyrants

The Irish writer Edna O’Brien, soon to celebrate her 85th birthday, reflects on four years spent in the company of tyrants.

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“They blanket out question, conscience, tenderness, recall and intelligence,” explains the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, momentarily downbeat, staring into her Earl Grey tea. We are less than eight minutes into our chat in the lounge of the shadowy town house that O’Brien has occupied in Kensington, west London, for over 30 years and already we are talking about war criminals.

“At least Shakespeare gave Macbeth a conscience in that he saw the daggers,” she says, reflecting on four years spent absorbing the diaries, memoirs and letters of despots through the ages as research for her new novel, The Little Red Chairs.

“But there is no admission of criminality. Think of the Nazis in South America, mowing their lawns and washing their cars. I find it unbelievable that a man (and they usually are men) could live with the thousands of deaths and not go mad. That I cannot understand. Can you?”

It is one of many difficult questions posed by The Little Red Chairs, which features a “healer and sex therapist”, loosely modelled on the Serbian nationalist Radovan Karadzic, who is on trial at The Hague for crimes including ordering the Srebrenica Massacre. For years, Karadzic masqueraded as a New Age medicine man, pedalling “human quantum energy” in Belgrade until his arrest.

O’Brien’s Dr Vuk (the Slavic word for “wolf”) takes up residence in an Irish village, where he becomes responsible for an unspeakable act of violence against a desperate local woman. “A question that interests me,” O’Brien adds, “is whether the corruption was manifested when the garment of power was handed to them, or simply made worse.”

She pauses. “Oh, I’ve no energy left for the interview,” she says, laughing. Clearly the dismaying charisma of Stalin, Hitler or Bashar al-Assad (“With his mild manner! If you were on a train, he’d open the door . . . and drop you into a pit”) remains an active preoccupation. “Now, what did you want to talk about?”

In December, O’Brien will celebrate her 85th birthday. As a girl at a convent school in County Clare she read Julius Caesar, the one play permitted by the nuns as it contained no sex, and her hunger for literature (and possibly reading about power-mad statesmen) was born. “I was carnivorous,” she says. “But books came later . . . out of circumstance.” Her enchanting debut, The Country Girls, was published in London in 1960 but was banned in Ireland for its depiction of female sexuality in a culture that strenuously denied it.

“Although I’ve been bruised,” she says, “it has never stopped my obsession with words. I don’t speak out of vanity – I’d like to have had my hair done before you came today but that’s different! For me, words and language have a great power and potential, even if they do not stop the horrors.”

She quotes the French mystic Romain Rolland – “Art is a great consolation to the individual but it is useless against history” – and moves on to the other great theme of her latest novel, that of displacement: “refugees, migrants, pouring on to roads and seas”. Last year, O’Brien met former refugees from the Bosnian War. “Compared with social life, dinner parties, literary parties, which are interesting but can be a bit superficial,” she says, “people who’ve been through what is called ‘the mill’ are blessed with a truthfulness, because they’ve seen so much.”

For her part, she hopes to retain “in my aged mind, to say nothing of my aged body”, a “memory sense” of the Irish landscape. This is not to imply that she longs for the countryside – “I’d go nuts” – but rather for what the victims think of daily on the courthouse steps in The Hague, a personal idea that is the final word in her novel: “home”.

Philip Maughan is an editor at 032c magazine and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?