Why Old Words Matter

Swimming in the Greatness of the Ordinary: A Review of Michael O'Briens's "Island of the World"

51oysBy0seL._AA115_ Michael O'Brien's over 800 page novel, Island of the World, is daunting in an era of short attention spans, and yet the reader's commitment to it will bear fruit in a renewed sense of God's providence, in the dignity of human life, and in Christian virtue.  As with all great novels, I did not want it to end and continue to carry its protagonist, Josip Lasta, into the day with me, informing my sense of who I am and should be.

The novel is epic in more ways than one.  Set in the unsettled pre-World War II Balkans of 1933, it follows the life of Josip, then 12, as the world around him unwinds.  Yugoslavia is wracked by civil war, as facsists, communists, and nationalists resist German and Italian occupiers.  A hellish scenario unwinds, turning Josip's idyllic village world upside down and wrenching him from the deep Catholic faith of his childhood.  The remainder of the novel, played out in Yugoslavia, Italy, and the United States, is a record of his life-long odyssey to recover that faith, as well as live it, to reckon with the demons of his path and accept the life he is given.

Although the novel has a destination, like any good novel, the journey is what truly matters.  Particularly enjoyable along the way are the poetic and theological insights gained.  For example, when talking with Miriam, his friend's wife, about St. Augustine's teachings about word and sign, Josip is beside himself with excitement:

"Miriam, Miriam," he exclaims, do you understand what this means!?"

"I think I do, Josip."

"It means that the world is radiant with signs.  Heaven is pouring out continual messages, but we can hardly read them, you see, because we are blind and deaf and do not know who we really are.  The signs in th earth, inanimate and organic, living and dead, are not divine in themselves, but they are creations of the divine. . . ."

Josip goes on to lament the fact that much of humanity misses these signs, how "we live and move and have our being within a vast masterpiece" of which we are often unaware.  That sense permeates the book.  As Josip says near the end of his life, his great freedom is that everyday "he can swim in the greatness of the ordinary."  Following his life, you are inspired by his courage, perseverance, honesty, and humility.  For all the tragedy that unfolds in the life of Josip Lasta, the novel imparts great hope, a deep and unsentimental awareness of God's providential ordering of all the details of our lives, even its sufferings bound up with meaning.  Our own sense of what life can and should be is enlarged, and a deep thankfulness settles in.  At least that's what I was left with.

Canadian Catholic Michael O'Brien's narrative brims with poetic sensibility and, indeed, his poetry finds expression in Josip, a mathematician turned poet.  You'll find many full-length poems, rich with natural imagery and theological insight.  Not a word in this word-full book is wasted, and yet the prose is neither dense nor daunting but flows naturally and richly.

After completing the book, I went back and read the short Prologue.  I realize now how little I understood of it then:

"We are born, we eat, we 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 us declare.  I was here."

Josip Lasta says this is ordinary life, life for all of us, and yet in the "island of the world" everything points outside itself to God, to eternity.  Everything means something.  The real foundations of the world are not in brick and mortar but above.

I recommend Island of the World if you have some time.  It just might be one of my favorite books of all time.