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The Opening Pages of Island of the World: A
Novel | Michael O'Brien | Ignatius Insight
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
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,
"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
She scowls and crosses her arms--her usual response whenever her husband is too
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"So, you want to go fishing?"
Josip shakes his head.
"You are really staring at that boat. Would you like to have such a
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?"
"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
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
Read more about Island of the World or order a copy today.
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Two-part interview with Michael | August 2004. Michael talks
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"A Cry of Stone" | From National Catholic Register,
Michael D. OBrien 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
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:
Visit Michael's author page at IgnatiusInsight.com
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