In March, of 2016, Radovan Karadzik was sentenced to 40 years in prison for crimes against humanity by the United Nations Court in The Hague. He led the siege of Sarajevo, beginning in 1992 and continuing until 1995, in which thousands of Sarajevans were slaughtered by the Serbs. Karadzik, sometimes called the Butcher of Bosnia, is the very real person O’Brien has based her novel upon. Eluding capture for more than a decade, one of his alias identities was Dr. David Dragan. O’Brien makes use of that last name in her novel. In April of 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, thousands of empty chairs were laid out in the streets to commemorate the Sarajevan lives that were lost. The book takes its title from that event.
The author has placed Karadzik in the person of a character named Dr. Vladimir Dragan, also known as Vuk, which means wolf and is a fearsome name. The novel is an account of the time in which he supposedly eluded arrest in the fictional town of Cloonoila, in Ireland. Disguised as a healer and sex therapist, sometimes playfully called Dr. Vlad, he was intelligent, understood human nature and was quite likeable. He carried about him an air of mystery and mysticism and exhibited an unusual knowledge of many things, like the qualities of certain plants and vegetables to benefit health and a knowledge of psychiatry which helped him analyze the needs of the people. His beautiful head of white hair and his full beard, coupled with his soft-spoken presence, made him attractive to the women. One woman, Fidelma, was especially drawn to him. She confided to him, in one of their conversations, that she dearly wanted a child. The story of their relationship and its aftermath was a difficult part of the story to read, but it is used to explain, graphically, how violent and brutal the war experience was for the ordinary citizens of Sarajevo.
Myths and legends and poetry embellish the tale. Although it takes place in the present time, there is a feeling of the past pervading the story and the location of the events is often hazy. It took me awhile to figure out that part of it was in Ireland and part in England. Perhaps it was because of the allusions to Dracula and Transylvania, and a bit of the occult, that I was distracted and believed it was taking place in European countries with a more fabled history.
I found the story interesting mostly in its lyrical and descriptive presentation which was sometimes mesmerizing, owing also to the exceptional narration on the audio by Juliet Stevenson. I felt as if I was in the actual countryside observing the scenes. From some scenes, I actually wanted to avert my eyes. It was through the experiences related by many of the witnesses and victims, as they exposed the violence and brutality that had been inflicted upon them and their families during the siege, that the story truly plays out and Dragan’s (Karadzik’s) arrogant and cruel personality is imagined and presented.
At times, the number of characters was overwhelming, and at other times, the story did not knit as well together as possible, leaving odd threads hanging about, making it a bit disjointed. Still, it prompted me to do research on the beast in the book, and for that the author deserves much credit. Shining a light on a piece of history that is not known well enough is a worthy effort, even if it is in fictional form. When it is based on a true historic event which touched so many thousands of people, it deserves attention.