A Rare Find
It is rare to find a book that grabs my heart, mind and soul. I usually read non-fiction with occasional brief forays into fiction. Most I find mediocre – predictable plots, paper thin characters with sit-com dialogue. Many I do not find worth purchasing – a reason to be thankful for the local library! Michael D. O’Brien’s “Island of the World” is a wonderful exception. Over 800 pages chronicle the life of Josip Lasta a Croatian mathematician, poet, political prisoner and refugee in the years before, during and after WWII and the Yugoslav Communist era. It is unusual to read a novel where the character actually wrestles with serious moral struggles and choices or describes with vividness the experience of grace or the forgiveness of one’s enemies but the author does it without being simplistic or preachy. O’Brien is a writer and painter who has also written novels such as “Father Elijah” and the “Children of the Last Days” series. His faith as a Roman Catholic is clearly evident in all his work and while his Christian faith is foundational it is not obnoxious nor propagandist as so often religious writing can be with simple black / white moral dilemmas or 2 dimensional characters popular at CBD.
In the late 70’s writer and teacher John Gardner caused quite a stir in academia when he published “On Moral Fiction”, 2 essays which attacked head on the cynicism and nihilism of modern art as promoted in the studio and academy: “True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values… True art, by specific technical means now commonly forgotten, clarifies life, establishes models of human action, cast nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns. It does not rant. It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons. It designs visions worth trying to make fact.”
With the likes of Lady Gaga today, such ideas may seem quaint but O’Brien’s writing is an example of what moral fiction might look like. While that idea alone may be enough to turn off many a reader the term does not mean comic book quality or bumper sticker sloganeering. Joseph endures much hardship, loss and grief but God’s providential care and surprises are on display throughout his journey from a small Croatian mountain town, to university, to a death camp, to the U.S. and then full-circle to his homeland. Along the way he comes to term with his faith, his loss, his sinful nature, and his enemies.
It is not a perfect book – some of the chapters and scenes are too drawn out, others too brief. The biggest shortcoming and one sour note of the novel is the exclusive focus by the end of the book on Catholic Croat suffering in the period and the neglect of other victims of atrocities at the same time – since Josip is portrayed as a reconciler it would have carried more weight for the writer to have mentioned or to have described if only briefly the role of the Catholic hierarchy and Franciscan monks such as Miroslav Filipovic that were also involved in genocide during WWII. Reconciliation also involves repentance and it would have been far more effective and realistic to see Josip come to terms with this history as well and treat “the other” of Serbian orthodoxy with a human face and an olive branch.
Despite this, “The Island of the World” is still outstanding. It is unusual fiction that describes how one man reconciles his personal history without succumbing to despair or revenge and how God’s reconciling grace in Christ causes us to come full circle and regain what has been lost.