Saturday, January 15, 2011

Island of the World by Michael O'Brien

There could hardly be a larger gap between the worldview expressed in this book and the one shown in the last book I reviewed. From hopeless relativism, we turn 180 degrees to face redemption and responsibility.

I've put off writing about this book, because it's hard to know what to say--how much to try to convey. It's a very long book. I read the Kindle version (a surprise gift), but I understand the print version is over 800 pages long.

The story begins in a mountain village in Croatia, during World War II, and ends more or less in the present, thus encompassing the reign of communism in post-war "Yugoslavia" from beginning to end. However, the story is not especially political--quite the opposite. It follows the story of one man's life--Josip Lasta--from his boyhood in the village to the end of his long life. Josip's happy childhood is interrupted by the violence taking place throughout his country, not just during the war, but immediately after.

He adapts himself to a certain extent to his new reality, and shapes a life for himself in Yugoslavia--one of the most peculiar countries ever to be found on a map (only old maps, now). Most of the story is the struggle of Josip to survive, not in body (although he has to fight that battle as well), but in his soul. I love my fiction laced with philosophy, and this book is full of profound questions, deep thoughts, and soul-searching complexities.

In my last post, on Blindness, I said that one of the things I most intensely disliked about that book (and other post-modern fiction) was the lack of names for people. It depersonalizes the characters, making them less than human. With that on my mind, I was struck forcefully by the importance of names in Island of the World. Part of the story takes place in a soviet-era, hard-labor prison camp. The prisoners use monikers instead of names for themselves--"the owl" or "the wedding guest." For a few men who allow themselves to trust each other, sharing their real names is an act of fellowship, trust, bonding, and an assertion of the importance of individuals. Each one matters. No one is expendable.

This quote from the book summarizes the ideas contained here:
It all fits together, and it moves in a marvelous order. This is the first time he has seen it with his eyes. Though of course, his textbooks and Tata's lessons have already inscribed it in his mind. Now it lives. It is immense, complex, and so moving that tears spring unbidden to his eyes. "Oh cosmos!" he gasps.

That sense of order--of all things, including suffering, grief, and loss,fitting together into an order too great for us to comprehend entirely is integral to the story, and to life.

"My father was a literate man," says Josip to Ariadne. "Not in the sense of one who merely filled his mind with the contents of what he read. He understood that words of beauty and truth raise man higher than himself."

How many ideas are packed into that little morsel? 1. Literature contributes to moral growth. 2. There is more than one kind of knowledge, and "mere contents" is the lesser kind. 3. Man is not the pinnacle of worthiness, and not only can he be raised higher, but he needs to be. 4. Beauty and truth are means to that elevation. ...and I've probably missed something.

You can see from that little example how much meat there must be in this book--food for thought for a long time to come.

I loved the writing, and I loved the setting. My only perception of Croatia to this point was through television travel-ads (come visit warm, sunny beaches!). Croatia is a popular tourist destination for Poles, not least because the languages are very similar (I understood all the Croatian words in the book, even the ones that weren't translated). This book fleshed out the geography and the country, and I now have a positive desire, which I hope will be fulfilled, to visit Split, one of the cities in which Josip lived.

While I whole-heartedly embrace the central premise of Island of the World--that man is in need of faith, and that he is part of a whole greater than himself--I have to include one caveat. There was one thing that was a bit of stumbling block for me, and that was this: Josip's faith is based largely on mystical experiences, rather than having its foundation in the Word of truth. Part of my disappointment is that readers who sympathize with Josip (and surely that will be most of the people who read this book) will not be having mystical visions in which swallows speak and white horses take them on journeys. They could, however, read the Words of truth which are very life.

Having expressed my one reservation about the book, I still recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone. And everyone. It will help you see, if you want to see.

"We live and move and have our being with a vast masterpiece. Nature itself is speaking or, rather, God is speaking through nature--"
"Yes, everything speaks because it is given by the Creator of all things."
"His hand is upon it all, the damaged and the undamaged. We must learn to see the original intention even in the damaged."

As they continue to follow the path deeper into the woods, the mother keeps an eye on her daughter, but Josip is staring simultaneously inward and upward, and also connecting to the colors blazing all around him. "We are so blind, so blind!" he groans, flailing his arms for emphasis, his face flushing, his voice intense with the excitement of this new discovery. "It's as if heaven is raining miracles upon us, but we cannot see because we do not look. It's as if fabulous birds fall unceasingly from the skies!"


At 4:06 PM , Blogger hopeinbrazil said...

What a lovely review! I was also given this book as a gift on my Kindle, but I'm saving it for when I get back to Brazil and won't have access to as many good books. =)

At 5:51 PM , Blogger Carol in Oregon said...

Karen, I want to learn how to review books like you when I grow up! This is *excellent*. I assuredly knew what you meant about the challenge of conveying the meat of this book.

Your paragraph on mysticism really resonates with my husband. He is such a practical man, and he found this very off-putting. But he loves the story.

My brother-in-law is a second generation Croatian American. He and his family visited Croatia a few years ago. I remember being intrigued by a city named Split. When you go, you must share your impressions.

At 5:51 PM , Blogger Anne said...

Excellent review, and I completely agree with your caveat.

Since finishing Island of the World, I've been reading Unbroken, a true story of a WW2 POW. It's a story of redemption, but still, I need to read something really light next! :-)

At 7:10 AM , Blogger dawn said...

I just finished this an hour or so ago. Your review (and Anne's) were the impetus for me requesting the book from the library and I had to convey my thanks to you.

What a spectacularly beautifully written, truthful book. Of course, the book teaches us that beauty and truth are inseparable.

Thank you again and again.


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