Island of the World is an historical novel but in a greater sense it is the narrative of a soul’s journey – an odyssey – through love, anguish, loss and recovery.
Josip Lasta is the soul of the story. From his innocent beginnings in a small Croatian village which was later absorbed into Yugoslavia, Josip experiences the instability of the region during World War II as various factions begin to tear into the fabric of his land. From the occupation of Croatia by German and Italian forces to its domination by Communist Partisans, Josip is caught up in the maelstrom and suffers the loss of all that he loves.
This is the second novel I’ve read by this author, the first was Eclipse of the Sun. Both are epics (this one is 839 pages), the writing deep and rich. The first book is more story but Island of the World is in a large part philosophical with the main character’s poetry and the theme of Homer’s Odyssey woven throughout.
The historical aspect of the book is often overshadowed or obscured by the author’s philosophical leanings, which are quite profound in places, and the sections of poetry, which I thought were overdone at times. That was probably due to the style of the poetry rather than its merit, but I pushed myself to read those bits, all the time wanting to get on with the story.
Michael O’Brien looks at humanity not just from a human perspective but in view of the spiritual realities: people are not our enemies. We are in a battle and we fight against principalities and powers and I appreciated the way he showed this reality and the truth that God can work all things together for our good.
His writing has a beautiful literary quality and even though the book is long, it wasn’t hard to read or to follow the plot.
I had some reservations with some of the mystical encounters and experiences the author describes. While these were understandable, I think that relying upon these as a basis for faith is problematic as they can be deceptive.
Something that I felt most powerfully through this book was the way the author brought in the themes of hatred, justice and forgiveness.
Hatred is an energy that gives and takes. It drains the soul, even as it seems to invigorate.
Josip has witnessed great cruelty and degradation during his imprisonment on the ‘island of death’ and he intends to avenge the murders of two of his fellow prisoners who were tortured by Zmija the snake. A fellow prisoner, a priest, pleads with him not to let himself become Cain and allow evil to win:
“You would kill your oppressors if given the chance?”
“With pleasure,” says Josip.
“Your vengeance will destroy you.”
“Oh? Tell me, Tata, how does a man remain wise in hell?”
The priest does not respond to this. Instead he says: “A man suffers injustice. He resents it, and his resentment grows and grows and becomes anger. Anger, if it is fed, then becomes hatred. Hatred, if fed, opens the soul to evil spirits. And when they possess a man, he becomes capable of any atrocity. Afterward, he will not know how or why he became like that.”
“I will know why. Go away!”
Josip escapes from the prison on the island and becomes ‘the walker.
He will walk into oblivion; he will walk so far that all remaining cells will be burned away; if he can overcome his body, if he does not allow it to force him to eat.
Making his way to Italy, he finds an abandoned army tank and takes refuge in the cave of its interior. On his second night he realises that something alive is moving within the machine…
Throughout the long night hours, they converse together, the walker and his unseen companion, so quiet spoken and considerate…
“You need not take the path you think is yours…I will show you a different way…”
“What place is that?”
“Freedom,” whispers the voice reverently. “Freedom without submission. Come with me, and I will show you. We will enter together.”
“What is your name?”
“You know my name.”
…The walker pauses and wonders, for an unease has entered him…
The walker falls silent. The dawn has crept in through the holes in the walls, and above his head is a scar of pale light. Now he sees the form of the other in the shadows, a man seated close by, their bodies centimeters apart. The face comes forward out of the shadows. It is Zmija the snake.
“You have found me!” cries the walker. “How did you find me?”
“I followed your trail, the trail Cain always leaves in the desolation beyond Eden, for his evil drains out of him but is ever replenished. Yes, you are already like me, for you are me and I am you.”
“No!” cries the walker.
Glancing about with desperate terror, he spies a spear of metal and thrusts his wrists upon it…
“You escape from me into my arms,” laughs the snake, “for there are no escapes.”
Now his blood is spurting, and he falls backwards against the hard metal floor.
Now another form slips down into the hole and strikes the shadow of the snake. The two forms clash, sword upon sword, until Zmija flies out through the hole and disappears into the sky.
The warrior kneels and takes the walker’s wrist in his hand.
“Rise up,” he says, “for you have work to do.”
The book is violent at times, as would be expected in a novel dealing with war & racial and religious tension. However, the themes of forgiveness and self-sacrifice are woven throughout it, undergirding the journey of a modern day Odysseus back to his homeland and his Father.
A very worthwhile book and I look forward to reading more from the author.