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The Opening Pages of Island of the World: A Novel | Michael O'Brien | Ignatius Insight

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Editor's note: The following is from the opening pages (9-21) of Michael O'Brien's new novel, Island of the World.


I am old. Time has revealed itself and shed its pretense of eternity; though it is of course contained within eternity. I clean the hallways, take out the garbage, try not to be irritated by the roar of ten million automobiles, and by the jackhammers that are breaking up the street outside the front door, only to lay down another stratum of tar for future generations to dig up. This is a big city, and though I have lived within it for close to forty years, I still do not understand how it survives.

Its people display an astonishing variety of colors, languages, temperaments, and ratios of good and evil (as is everywhere), but they do not seem unhappy. Neither do they contemplate the body of the world. Its foundations are below them, they believe, in the concrete and tar, the pipes and wires. During my time among them I have noticed this delusion particularly. Seldom have I encountered the few who are awake, who cast their gaze to the real foundations, which, as human beings should know, are above.

Soon I will leave this place and return to my first home. Perhaps I will find myself waiting for me there. Is this a candid admission that I have failed to know myself? Yes, of course it is. What else is there to learn save that we know almost nothing? I am not referring to biographical data, but to something more important, the character of presence that appears to be displacement, as a stone or tree displaces air as it fills space. That I am a displaced person is true enough. Yet this is true of all men, each in his way. What is to be learned of me now rests in memory; the interior, a country that contains ranges of mountains and their shadowed vales, the beds of alpine glens, the crevasse and its fall from which there is no return, and the summit from which one does not wish to return.

Why do we in memory seek ourselves, when it is ourselves who shape the memories? The truth is, we shape and are shaped. In the beginning we unwittingly find our forms, as the first steps of a child. Later we take our longer strides, with secret timorousness, preferring a crowd of companions. Then, in time, we go farther out into the world with blind and knowing willfulness, with good intent and ill, alone inside ourselves. For in solitude the blur of safe indistinction becomes sharp and dangerous identity. Then, when identity has sealed its form, we seek union with the other islands, within the island of the world.

Of my life I can only resort to pictures. It began, as most lives do, with warmth and milk and love.

The village was hidden from the world. At least it thought itself so, for it was ringed by peaks, and its people assumed that a valley suspended so high above all others was exempt from tribulation. We the young believed this. Our elders encouraged the illusion. They did not want to rob us of our joy and perhaps desired to share in it a little. And so the mountains were the meridians of all creation. The brook that came to us from the upper crags ran unfailing, clear and swift between the houses. The little fields and flocks fed us well. From other places men of wisdom came from time to time and taught us of the world beyond, which was a place of fear and confusion. For us, the children of Rajska Polja, which is the fields of heaven, their accounts seemed more remote than the tales of Anthony and Francis, who could talk to fish and birds.

In this place where we first appeared, we did not doubt that love is the path of ascent. We did not think of it, as we did not think of the air we breathed. In time our flesh received instruction as we grew, and our hearts and our souls. We came to know that love is the soul of the world, though its body bleeds, and we must learn to bleed with it. Love is also the seed and milk and the fruit of the world, though we can partake of it in greed or reverence.

We are born, we eat, and learn, and die. We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem left behind. I was here, each of these declare. I was here.



That summer, three gifts come to him.

Because the entire year has been full of interesting events, it is not clear at first that they are gifts. The first is the journey he makes with his father to the sea, leaving the mountains behind, though they cannot be left behind really, because they reach as far as the waters of the coast, and tower always in the composition of his mind. The sea itself is the second gift, for it is not an aspect of the world that he has seen before. The third is the miracle of the swallow. This last gift, it seems to him, is the least of the three.

"Josip, tomorrow you will see a great thing", says his father as they rise by candlelight before dawn, putting on their clothes beside the stove while mother makes a fire. "You will see the waters of the Adriatic."

"Is it like a lake?" Josip asks. He has seen photographs of the ocean in one of his father's books, but it is hard to tell its size from them.

"Much bigger than a lake."

"How big is it, really, Tata?" he presses with earnest curiosity, for he believes that his father has an answer for everything.

"It is beyond measuring, Josip."

"Is it as big as the sky?"

"That is a difficult question. When you go there you will see that the sky above it is greater than the sky above our mountains."

Josip furrows his brow in concentration.

"This I do not understand!"

"You must see it with your own eyes and then you will understand."

The boy closes his eyelids and touches them with his fingertips.

"The sea will show you many things, Josip."


"Yes, fish", says his father, smiling, as he lights the oil lamp above the kitchen table. "But more than fish."

"Squid?" He has seen a picture of squid and read a little about them.

"Perhaps we will see a squid."

"With a spear I will catch one, and we will cook rice in its ink."

"First you will have to catch one;"

"Will we play in the sea?"

"We will play in it."

"Miro," interjects his mother, "do not let him be too. . ."


"Too like himself. If you see him about to throw himself into deep water, stop him."

"I will stop him", laughs his father.

"He cannot swim. He is nine years old, and he cannot swim."

"Marija, if we do not play in the dangerous surf, we will drown in puddles."

She scowls and crosses her arms--her usual response whenever her husband is too witty.

"No one swims in Rajska Polja," Josip pipes, "except in the rain."

"You and your friends pretend to swim," says his mother, kissing him on the forehead, "but if it was anything more than rain, you would drown, you would die, and how would you like that!"

"I wouldn't drown", says Josip, cramming bread into one side

of his mouth and tilting a crock of warm milk toward the other. 1k chokes on it, coughing and sputtering.

"Already you're drowning!" cries his mother.

As they eat the remainder of their meal on the little wooden table beside the window, the roosters begin crowing. A slice of red flame slips over the crest of the mountain, drawing in its train a veil of pink. His father's eyes wander toward it.

"Rose-fingered dawn", he murmurs.

"Will we bring The Iliad or The Odyssey with us?" Josip asks. "Will you read aloud to me when we sleep at the sisters' convent?

"Finish chewing before you speak", says his mother. "Miro, please, enough of war."

"It is an old, old war, Mamica", Josip pleads. "The rage of Achilles is very interesting."

"We will bring no books", the father answers. "Instead we will see with our own eyes what Odysseus saw. We will see the waters he sailed upon in Argo."

"Will we see monsters?"

"That is always possible."

The sun is just rolling over the ridge of Zamak mountain by the time Josip and his father are ready to go. In the yard the night-chill lingers, and the smell of sheep droppings is pleasant to the nose. While his father leads Svez the donkey from the shed behind the house and harnesses him to the cart, Josip gazes down the lane, which is the only street in Rajska Polja. Two dozen houses are scattered haphazardly along its muddy ruts. Most of them are made of field stone, a few of wood, many with their back walls under the slopes of the hills. On both sides of the village, pastures rise to the east and the west. Beyond the grass there is forest, and above the trees high bare ridges merge with sharper peaks.

Svez is harnessed and snorting little bursts of frosty breath. Onto the cart his father loads the carry-box with a food bag and sheepskin water flasks. When those tasks are completed, he opens his arms wide and drops to his knees. He and the mother and Josip kneel with their arms around each other and pray that God will give a safe journey and for a blessing on everything that will occur between the going and the coming. They all make the sign of the cross and stand, brushing dirt from their knees. Then father bows to the stone church at the end of the street, kisses his wife, and lifts Josip onto the plank where they will sit.

"Bye-bye, Mamica", Josip waves. "I will miss you very much, but I must go and see the world."

"Of course you must go and see the world, my Josip. And you must come home again too. I will make a beautiful supper."

"I will explain to him, Marija, that The Odyssey is all about a man trying to get home again."

She folds her arms and smiles into her husband's eyes, but man and boy can see that she does not like them to go away, even if only for a few days.

"Pray for a door to open", father says.

"I will pray. In Split, there are many good people. Stay away from soldiers. And beware of gypsies."

"There are good gypsies."

"I know, just as there are good beggars and bad beggars. But we cannot afford to give our few coins to frauds. A school-teacher's income.

"In the city there may be jobs, new schools. It would be better for him . .

Him, Josip knows, is the singular object of their affection, their only child--himself.

Father flicks the reins, and Svez reluctantly hobbles forward, pulling the creaking cart slowly along the lane and out into the eastern pasture toward the mountain pass. All around them the peaks are white, the morning birds swim in the liquid air, and the purples, reds and yellows of meadow flowers sway in the wind. The air is scented by the pine trees above the schoolhouse and combed by the oak forest on the mountain slopes, and the hell in the church begins to ring with laughter.

Theirs is a small valley, higher than most in the region, containing little more than a hundred souls. It is not long before they leave it behind and enter the folds in the range that lead downward to the coast.

By noon they arrive at the nearest village. From there they go by another route, no longer a path but a track of rutted dirt. There is a lot of up and down, though they are slowly, slowly winding their way lower in the mountains. When the sun sets, father pulls off into a grove of trees sprouting new leaves. They are hidden from view; no one passing by would know they are here; there are no houses to be seen in any direction. A fox harks, and night birds call to each other. The stars are very bright. The chill settles in quickly. It is the first time in many years Josip sleeps with his father, curled inside his arms, wrapped in a blanket. It feels warm and safe.

Before dawn they resume their journey, passing into the lower foothills of a narrow gorge flanked by brutally sharp ranges. Now the rutted dirt is firmer underfoot and becomes a road with a noisy creek babbling beside it. The sun is high in the sky by the time the gorge opens up and enters a wider valley. Here the creek flows into a river. Father directs Svez across a clattering wooden bridge and then turns right onto a gravel road that runs beside the river.

"The Neretva", says father.

"It is very big", says Josip, with wide eyes.

"At this point it is not so big. It grows as it nears the coast."

They proceed along the road for many hours, and occasionally they must plug their ears against the roar of trucks that father says are going north to Sarajevo, and of others going south to Mostar. The valley through which the river passes is like a canyon, its lower slopes covered with low brush and small trees, growing barer as the cut in the earth soars toward the great white peaks.

At one point his father pulls the cart to the side of the road, and they walk down to the riverbank. How dark the water is, more silent than the mountain creeks, more powerful too. They kneel on a patch of sand to fill the water-skins. When Josip's is full and the cork firmly in place, lie stands and notices a boat floating a few meters downstream, tethered to a bush by a rope. This is the first real boat he has ever seen. It is nothing like the pictures of such vessels that he has looked at in books. It is shaped like a knife blade, two man-lengths long, and painted blue. This blue is unlike the other blues that he loves, such as the sky or the flashes on a lastavica. This blue is like the robe of a king.

"Oh", he breathes, opening his mouth and spreading his arms.

His father is standing beside Josip, looking down at him with a small smile of amusement.

"So, you want to go fishing?"

Josip shakes his head.

"You are really staring at that boat. Would you like to have such a boat?"

Yes--rather, no! To possess it is not what he is thinking. He is merely loving its shape, its color, and the way it floats as if weightless upon the swift green water.



"Are we like this?"

"Like what?"

"Are we boats?"

His father laughs, then shakes his son's shoulder. "No time for daydreams, Josip. We'd better get moving if we want to reach Mostar by nightfall."

So, Svez ambles steadily along the road, and the motion of the cart induces drowsiness. An hour or two pass while Josip dozes with his head leaning on his father's shoulder. When he opens his eyes, he sits bolt upright and points.

"Look, Tata, castles!"

On promontories above their heads, enormous towers of stone jut toward the sky, the solitary fortresses of giants who guard the river.

His father smiles. "They are natural formations, Josip, made by God, not by man."

Island of the World is the story of a child born in 1933 into the turbulent world of the Balkans and tracing his life into the third millennium. The central character is Josip Lasta, the son of an impoverished school teacher in a remote village high in the mountains of the Bosnian interior. As the novel begins, World War II is underway and the entire region of Yugoslavia is torn by conflicting factions: German and Italian occupying armies, and the rebel forces that resist them--the fascist Ustashe, Serb nationalist Chetniks, and Communist Partisans. As events gather momentum, hell breaks loose, and the young and the innocent are caught in the path of great evils. Their only remaining strength is their religious faith and their families.

For more than a century, the confused and highly inflammatory history of former Yugoslavia has been the subject of numerous books, many of them rife with revisionist history and propaganda. The peoples of the Balkans live on the border of three worlds: the Islamic, the orthodox Slavic East, and Catholic Europe, and as such they stand in the path of major world conflicts that are not only geo-political but fundamentally spiritual. This novel cuts to the core question: how does a person retain his identity, indeed his humanity, in absolutely dehumanizing situations?

In the life of the central character, the author demonstrates that this will demand suffering and sacrifice, heroism and even holiness. When he is twelve years old, his entire world is destroyed, and so begins a lifelong Odyssey to find again the faith which the blows of evil have shattered. The plot takes the reader through Josip's youth, his young manhood, life under the Communist regime, hope and loss and unexpected blessings, the growth of his creative powers as a poet, and the ultimate test of his life. Ultimately this novel is about the crucifixion of a soul—and resurrection.

Read more about Island of the World or order a copy today.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Interviews:

Novelist of the Last Days | An Interview with Michael O'Brien. An April 2005 interview with Michael about his novel Sophia House.

• Two-part interview with Michael | August 2004. Michael talks with IgnatiusInsight.com about his novel, A Cry of Stone and the work of a novelist. Read Part One and Part Two.

"Thought Crime Becomes a Reality in Canada" | An article by Michael from August 2004 about a new Canadian federal hate crimes law that will include speech against sexual orientation.

"Are Christians Intolerant?" | An excerpt from A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind.

Review of "A Cry of Stone" | From National Catholic Register, July 2004.

Michael D. O’Brien is the former editor of the Catholic family magazine, Nazareth Journal. He is also the author of several books, including his seven volume series of novels published by Ignatius Press, notably the best-selling Father Elijah. For more than thirty years he has been a professional artist.

Michael and his wife Sheila have six children. He writes and paints full-time at his home near Combermere, Ontario.

His paintings and published articles can be seen at his gallery website: www.studiobrien.com.

Visit Michael's author page at IgnatiusInsight.com

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