I came fully awake very early this morning, and opened my eyes to a window full of sheer crimson light. One of those rare, red mornings that come sometimes in autumn had visited the mountains. I wonder if beauty can be so great that it wakes you even from physical sleep, because I was exhausted. But there came that light, and up went my eyes. That dawn was a face pressed against my panes, staring at me until I woke to stare back. I sat up then, propped on pillows to watch the light draw back and laugh itself into pink, and then the gold of new day. And as I watched, the words from a story I had read just the night before spoke themselves over and over in my head:
With his one good foot, the man nudges Josip, pushing him gently, making him turn to face the opposite wall. The bar of light is climbing higher now.
“Do you see?”
Josip shakes his head.
“Surely you see,” says the man.
“I see the light, but the walls imprison it.”
“The light has entered the prison. Nothing can keep it out.”
“If there is no window, the light cannot enter.”
“If there is no window, the light enters within you.”
You know a novel is good when its words creep into your rare, sacred moments and shape the way you see them. With that passage framing the glory out my window, I felt a prayer form in my head, a plea for that sort of light to enter, to grow, in me. And when a story shapes your very prayer, well, you want to share it.
The novel in this case is Island of the World, by Michael O’Brien. I was familiar with O’Brien through his nonfiction book, A Landscape with Dragons. I sped through that one; a fascinating look at the spiritual and imaginative symbols that fill fairy tales and myth throughout the ages, and come to us in modern times through fantastical literature. (I highly recommend it, though disagree with O’Brien’s conclusions about A Wrinkle in Time.) So full of insight was that book into the workings of imagination, into the way we crave beauty and battle in story, I knew I would probably enjoy his fiction. When a bookish friend urgently pressed this 800-page novel into my hands last week, I dove right in.
Imagine that a medieval mystic poet wrote a modern novel with communist Yugoslavia as his setting and a little boy as his hero. That will get you the feel of this tale. The story opens in the boyhood of Josip Lasta, a Croatian boy oblivious to the turmoil enveloping his country at the end of WWII because he is so immersed in a joyous childhood in the remote mountain village of Rajska Polja, (translation; “the fields of heaven”). His life is simple; his home just three rooms, but he is rich in all the things that count. Taught literature and love by his schoolteacher father, adored by his warm-hearted, bread-baking “Mamica,” Josip is raised in the tight, friendly circle of his village and schooled in a living faith by the hearty Franciscan priest, Fra Anto.
I’m not giving anything away when I say the first hundred pages of this book fool you with their joy. You know tragedy is coming, it’s hinted at in the first chapters. But the strong, homey beauty of family and field and tradition draws you into an innocence as sweet and blind as Josip’s. You dwell in that world with him as he discovers the great beauty of the earth, and senses the Love that beats behind it. You watch as light forms a land of its own at the center of Josip’s soul, founds a refuge right in his heart, and you, the reader, feel it to be the heartbeat of the story.
Then the world breaks apart. Josip’s life is shattered and he is exiled, not just from his home, but from that place of joy in his deepest heart. And that’s where the journey begins. From the point of tragedy on, the novel moves quickly through Josip’s life as he becomes a mathematician, a professor, and then a “cultural rebel” under Tito’s reign. From a literary point of view, I found the pace of the novel swift and smooth; it was that rare book where I barely noticed the passing of a hundred pages. The history explained, and the evocation of the culture and mindset of that part of the world is superb. I have always maintained that stories are the best way to learn history, and if you are curious about the Balkans, you should read this for pure education. Yet the glory of this book is not in its excellent writing, or detailed research. The gift of this story lies in its unblinking portrayal of human brutality as it is juxtaposed with the light, the poetry, the Love that still bubbles up in the heart of a wounded boy and calls him relentlessly home.
I warn you, this is a book that might cause embarrassment if read in public places. It has greatly funny moments; I sat in a coffee shop yesterday trying hard not to laugh straight out loud at the novel’s conversation between a Croatian Catholic and a Pentecostal from Harlem as they compare notes and merrily call each other heretics. But I have also cried at this book, teared up in ridiculously public places more often than with almost any other novel I have read. The tears aren’t surface either; whatever hurt or struggle you bear, this story will touch it. This book will not spare you as a reader (and if you are squeamish about violence, be warned that it is squirm-worthy. Not gratuitously graphic, but definitely matter of fact.) Josip’s life, the brutality that comes upon him unawares, his fight to escape not only evil men, but the “heart of Cain,” in himself, describes the battle in which I think we all are daily locked.
But it also describes the journey and offers the affirmation that through pain and despair, we are all, truly, walking toward a world remade by Love. A world beyond this, and yet one growing up in the innermost regions of our souls. In this way, I find the story to be a mystic’s work, because it is a story that affirms the reality of the spiritual world as it shapes and transforms the events of the physical. Life and death, hope or pain, life may deal these things to us in circumstance, but it is the love working within us that changes what is marred and dark into grace. Josip’s story on the outside is an epic, Homeric journey across oceans and mountains, but the journey of his soul is no less the point and gift of the story. Josip must make his way back to the country within himself where Light enters in, even when there is no window. For me, to read this book, was to walk a little better in my own odyssey of the soul. In so many ways, this book is about the beauty that is always reaching out, always growing up within, beckoning us back, and sometimes that call comes in the form of a story. Island of the World was just such a gift to me.
Josip turns and faces the wide open doors. “I do not know if I have the strength to enter.”
“You do not need strength. You need the heart of a child. See, one comes to you now. He will show you the way.”
Though the old man still has not opened his eyes, he points, and there at the end of his fingers, standing a few paces away, is a twelve-year-old-boy in white shirt and shorts, with sandals on his feet. When Josip meets his eyes, the boy smiles and extends his hand.
Step by step, the child leads him upward toward the entrance, pulling gently . . . Josip steps forward, but in that step he dies. Pitching headlong, he falls and falls and falls–into terror and despair. Then, the little hand pulls him up. Now he is standing again and going forward and at last he enters the house of God, the joy of his youth.