Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

In the Company of Tyrants

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

In the Company of Tyrants

Article excerpt

"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 .. …

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