Like Odysseus, we’re all trying to get back home. Violence has taken us away from our early homeland, and now we are on that circuitous journey, fraught with perils and sometimes shipwreck, trying to get back. Every time we think we’ve arrived—right up to the Last Arrival—we find there’s more of the arduous journey still ahead. When we think we’ve found or think we’ve returned to our homeland, it turns out to be a mere island again. Even the world is ultimately just an island: it’s not the Continental Homeland. And we’d never make it on this Odyssey without the hospitality and charitable help from lots of other folks along the way. And Grace.
. . .
And so it is with Josip Lasta in Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World. The book opens with nine-year-old Josip and his father preparing to go on a journey away from their Croation village of Rajska Polja (the fields of heaven), which nestles in a small mountain valley that Josip believes inviolable. They are going to the city of Split and to the sea.
World War II is in full swing, and Josip’s father, Miro, the village school master, is looking for a better job and better chances of advancement for his son. They are also going to stop by the Franciscan convent to see Josips’ aunt, Sister Katarina of the Holy Angels. But amid the joys and simple pleasures—figs freely given, windfall oranges, chocolate, white stones, seeing new sights, sleeping outdoors— of this trip, Josip begins to see some cracks in the protective wall surrounding his world. For the first time ever, he sees fear in his father’s eyes and hears him speak in hushed tones. But there is still the sea.
Josip can’t swim yet (though he becomes an accomplished swimmer later, which serves him well when he escapes from Goli Otok), so his father keeps an eye on him. But Josip is so captivated by the sea that he abandons himself utterly to its embrace—and his father pulls him back. Later, while his father naps, Josip sits by the sea, and a swallow alights in this hands—an image that recurs throughout. He can’t grasp it, can’t possess it. He can only let it light as long as it chooses. The swallow is free and will go where it pleases—like Grace, which comes only when you are still before the Immensity, silently waiting, not grasping.
This is all in the first chapter. And all the recurring images and motifs and all the themes to be developed have been introduced.
So Josip and his father return home to Rajska Polja and resume their lives . . . for a while. Josip meets his first love, Josipa, vaguely senses the inchoate stirrings of his vocation as a poet, receives some great graces, and sees the cracks widen.
Fra Anto, the village priest, a Franciscan, a huge man with bare feet and bandaged toes, takes Josip and a few other boys in his circle on an excursion. They go to a small hidden valley beyond the northern pass of the valley of Rajska Polja. But there in this secret place, which otherwise might have been a means of escape and a refuge in times of danger, is a man’s footprint. There is no completely safe place in the island of the world, so Fra Anto hustles the boys back home. Now, we know what’s coming.
Some time later, in the dead of winter just before spring, a difficult birth is taking place, and Josip is sent, with his good friend Petar, to a neighboring village to fetch another midwife. The midwife is at yet another birth in another village, so Josip remains and Petar returns to Rajska Polja. While Josip is there, a band of guerillas descends on the village, killing and destroying, though Josip is spared (ironically, by his uncle, the husband of his other, atheist, aunt in Sarajevo who later takes him in). The next morning Josip returns to Rajska Polja and finds it destroyed. He sees the village razed, his own home burned with his parents in it, Petar dead with his hand lopped off, Josipa dead and bloodied and violated, Hosts in the church bloodied and muddied (but he consumes them), and the big body of Fra Anto sprawled with the mocking marks of crucifixion on that body and his genitals mutilated (an image which prevents Josip from entering a church for years). His world is gone. And so begins Josip’s time of running-away.
Josip runs to Sarajevo, aided by Alija along the way, where his Aunt Eva takes in him and nurses him back to health and a semblance of sanity. He eventually meets the truculent, drunken uncle who spared him and who eventually blows out his own brains all over the bedroom wall—blood added to blood. Josip learns to fish and to swim, and he begins school. Eventually, he earns a scholarship to the university. And he runs from his vocation as a poet.
Next, we pick up Josip in Split as a graduate student and then as a professor of mathematics, whose dissertation on metaphysical mathematics was more a work of poetry than math. This is in Communist Yugoslavia under Tito. Josip is recruited for and then joins a select group of artists and thinkers—Josip, though he tries to run from it, is designated their poet—who are attempting to fight against the soul-destroying inhumanity of the Communist regime by creating an alternative, underground culture (much like Father and then Bishop Wojtyla did in Communist-occupied Poland). There, at those meetings, Josip meets the love of his life and future wife, Ariadne Horvatinec, daughter of the group’s organizer. She also brings out the poet in him even more.
They marry and begin a blissful life together. And Ariadne conceives a child . . . and returns to the Faith of her youth, though Josip cannot follow her, the image of the dead Fra Anto blocking every church entrance. Eventually, though, as we expect, the group is betrayed. Communist agents descend on their apartment and haul Josip away to the political internment camp and hard-labor limestone quarry on the island of Goli Otok, the white island, where he suffers incredible brutalities.
It is a place where little men have big power over other men, a microcosm, a small island of the world—a place where the image of God is corrupted in many ways. Yet, in spite of the harsh conditions and the atrocities and the many men who descend to the level of beasts, there is a remnant. There remains a small group of prisoners who hang on to their humanity and nurse the battered and nearly dead Josip back to health—and prevent him from losing his humanity. Josip narrowly escapes committing murder and becoming one of the sub-men. These few fellow prisoners and the hope of reuniting with his wife and his child keep Josip going through it all.
Josip eventually escapes, owing to a Providential storm and the consequent black out, and swims to the mainland. He washes up on shore and is again nursed back to health by the kindness and charity of others, Drago and his wife, Marija, who give him shelter and food and clothing. When Josip is strong enough, Drago and his brother take him to Split so that Josip can search for his wife and child. Josip is informed that they are dead, he almost commits murder again, and his fragile world and psyche collapse again. And so he runs again—encountering, again, several small helps and hospitalities along the way.
Josip eventually winds up in Italy in a psychiatric hospital, at one point barely winning through in an encounter with the Evil One and attempting self-murder. But through the kindness and friendship of Slavica, his psychologist and fellow Croation exile, and her husband, Emilio, a dentist, he eventually regains his health, his sanity, and his teeth. And his Faith, for this period is pivotal.
Through Slavica’s and her American friend’s influence, Josip gets a job at the American embassy in Rome. He runs into some trouble with the American friend, and so he runs again, to America this time. But not before he has forgiven—the penance laid on him by the blind, soul-reading Franciscan priest who hears Josip’s confession in St. Peter’s Square. So Josip’s fleeing this time begins to be a running-to.
Next, we find Josip settled in as a janitor in an apartment building in New York City. He lives a quiet obscure life, doing his job, fishing, writing poems, and forgiving and returning good for evil, his vocation now. He also befriends a troubled African-American youth, Caleb Franklin, who, thanks to Josip’s influence and guidance, becomes a professor and acclaimed poet. Josip is a stranger and sojourner in this land, this island where he has settled for a time, and he encounters and befriends other exiles of various stripes. He also gains some slight recognition as poet when he is published in a journal for other Croation expatriates.
Josip eventually discovers that his wife, once thought dead, is alive and living in the same city, which causes him great anguish and not a little theological confusion. After some years and Ariadne’s death, he learns that his child, his daughter Marija, is alive as well. So, they spend time filling each other in on their lives.
After a few false starts, Josip returns to his homeland and lives out his days there. He writes his poems, prays, forgives, attends Mass. He also prepares for his final voyage to the true Homeland.
. . .
That’s a good bit of plot summary (and still it’s not enough), I know, but this is after all an 838-page book, and a lot happens in it. So it takes some time to set the stage.
. . .
Josip’s father was a great reader and quoter of the Odyssey, and Josip was steeped in it from a young age. An often overlooked aspect of the Odyssey is the duty of hospitality. In that hostile and unyielding ancient world, leaving home to travel abroad was always dangerous, and without a widely recognized obligation of hospitality among civilized men, travel would be impossible. (One of the titles for Zeus was xeinios, “protector of strangers.”) Odysseus had a lot of help getting back home to Ithaca, especially from the Phaeacians (though it ultimately didn’t turn out so well for them.) And so did Josip. These were many little and large graces sprinkled throughout his hardships that all worked together for good.
Odysseus was trying to get back to his island home of Ithaca. And for a good pagan, an island is good enough. But not for a Catholic, not for Josip. We learn, as did Josip, that the whole world is just an island. It is not our Home, not the Continent, the Main, that we yearn for because we are a piece of It and a part of It. Josip was graced with a “severe mercy” that made it impossible for him to consider this island home.
This book by Michael O’Brien, Island of the World, is the best modern fictional treatment I have come across of the vocation of suffering and forgiveness. Josip’s sufferings are literally painful to read (and his people in Croatia have suffered immeasurably as well, having been located at a geographical and political crossroads). Josip is a poet, but he is a poet because he is a sufferer and a forgiver of wrongs. That was his vocation, even though he ran from it for years. He had to die in order to live.
Like a previous book of his, A Cry of Stone, O’Brien’s Island of the World illustrates Mother Theresa’s famous dictum that we’re not called to be successful, just to be faithful. Josip’s vocation as a poet wasn’t really recognized and didn’t really have much impact until near the end of his life. But he was a poet, so he kept at it.
Josip is a nobody in the world’s eyes just like Rose in A Cry of Stone: he has a humble job, he dresses shabbily, and he lives in a basement. Yet he accomplishes great things, like loving and forgiving the irascible old Serbian lady in the fish market he frequents and becoming a surrogate father to Caleb Franklin who was headed down the wrong road until he encountered Josip. But it doesn’t matter that he is small in the world because it is, after all, just an island, not home.
When Josip and Caleb are at the airport and Josip is on the verge of leaving America for good to finish his life in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Josip calls Caleb his son. And then there’s this exchange:
“A man is himself and no other,” Josip says. “He is an island in the sea of being. And each island is as no other. The islands are connected because they have come forth from the sea, and the sea flows between them. It separates them yet unites them, if they learn to swim.”
“You already taught me this, Josip, a long time ago.”
And so he did.
Now, one of the things that bothered me about this book, on a first reading, was this. Many of the descriptions, especially of landscapes, are rather flat and stylized, with repeated colors and themes, at times almost caricatures. That is, it bothered me until I remembered that O’Brien is an icon painter, or at least a painter in icon style. So I realized that this was deliberate—and effective. Too often in our special effects-saturated world we tend to expect a realistic rendering in everything. But that’s not the essence of art. Here’s a give-away passage:
“The stone hut where they [Josip and Ariadne] first knew their nuptial love will always be the icon of their homes to come.”
Island of the World is a sprawling book, and in such books there are always some deficiencies. Yes, it is a bit uneven and has a few sharp corners and some splintery spots, and the joints are visible in a few places. And it could be shorter—or if not shorter, then much longer. But it is a very good book and well worth the effort. I’ve never read one of O’Brien’s books that didn’t change me at least a little for the better. Highly recommended.
I have a new book out, too. It’s titled Some Narrow Views. If you like provocative, well wrought prose, then you’ll likely enjoy this book as well. You can sample Some Narrow Views at Amazon or at Smashwords (for iPad and Nook users).
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