[Once upon a time when I lived in Europe, I kept a blog that has since gone private. That’s where I shared my thoughts on my favorite novel. I’m re-reading it now, so I’m bringing that post over here. If you’ve never read Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien, I urge you to put it on your TBR list. ]
…this one is my favorite.
The first day of 2011 was utterly wonderful, especially because I had the luxury of spending hours finishing and savoring Michael D. O’Brien’s Island of the World. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time, and I plan to read it again at some point. I agree with J at Seasonal Soundings that this is a book that changes you. It has changed me.
“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.”
As much pain and sadness and horror as Josip experiences (and he goes through a disturbing amount of it), the book joyously illustrates the beauty of the image of God in man. Sarah’s review says it better than I can:
The gift of this story lies in its unblinking portrayal of human brutality as it is juxtaposed with the light, the poetry, the Love that still bubbles up in the heart of a wounded boy and calls him relentlessly home.
Yes, it does.
I had the bonus of being a reader who has recently been in some of the places that serve as settings in this story — Sarajevo, Rome, and New York City. However, even with being able to picture some of the places Josip travels, I feel woefully ignorant of the history and geography of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Yugoslavia and the brutalities its people have experienced. How could I not have known about the millions of people imprisoned, tortured, and slaughtered there? How do we happily live on the same planet as such evils?
I regret not marking up my copy as I read, so I will have to do that next time. There are so many lines and passages that are sheer beauty. Most I don’t want to share here, though, because I don’t want to spoil the story for you. Here are a few:
He will leave in a moment, after just one more cuplet of coffee. Europeans know how to make it right! This is the best in the world, better than the specialty brands he experimented with in the delicatessens on Fifth Avenue. Europeans understand that flavor is not about sensory stimulation, it is about evocation. It is art and memory. It is reunion with exalted moments, and such moments are never solitary ones. In short, life without coffee is not really life. The waiter brings it to him and tells him it’s on the house! A smile from the lad and a bow of his head. What elicited this gift? Perhaps it is house policy: three paid, get one free! Maybe it is simple human kindness. Yes, kindness prevails in the world, gratuitous and unsolicited. This bodes well for the future of mankind.
Josip’s observations on Roman traffic and drivers had me nodding my head:
Of that day’s context, he will remember dust and stone, blindingly-white marble, and noise such as he has never before experienced. Streets are crammed with automobiles that speed and screech and honk and brake and lurch from stable positions at traffic lights into a blur of motion–all with the manic pace and the demonic roars of dangerous, unreliable slaves. The drivers’ faces are the worst aspect. They are as intense as any he has seen in his life, even the guards on the island, certain interrogators, or various prisoners who would bot from their chains in a hopeless run toward the sea.
Isn’t it a basic truth that we are brought to prayer only by passing through suffering? In this respect, war was a blessing because it taught this generation how to pray, and it taught us the power of prayer. We learned that it was prayer that preserved us against impossible odds and only prayer that brought us independence. Dare I write these words — O God, how dare I write them? — yet I cannot be silent. The war was a catastrophe, but in Christ the worst catastrophe can be transformed into a blessing. The war renewed awareness of our centuries-old Christian identity and prepared us to be steadfast in these times which, with every passing day, are resembling more and more the end times. Our horrible war taught us “in the flesh” about the Great War that will last until the end of time.
And just one more:
I am a man who possesses only fragments, a beggar who wanders into a feast of materialism, offering to the guests a basket of broken bread.
I could go on and on, but, really, please just read the book. You won’t be sorry. And I’d love to hear what you think about it after you do.