An Interview with Michael D. O’Brien on his new novel
The Island of the World
by Lifesite News (www.lifesitenews.com)
Combermere, Ontario, December 26, 2007
Question: Tell us about your new novel, to give readers a sense of it.
O'Brien: The 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 is unleashed, 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.
Q: Is this primarily a historical novel, or perhaps a political one?
O’Brien: No, it is neither, though of course history and politics play important roles in the story. Its primary focus is on persons, dramatized through the life of a person, a soul. However, the history that is part of the plot recounts accurately what happened, and as such the book may be somewhat controversial. 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 any absolutely dehumanizing situation?
Q: How does he retain his humanity?
O’Brien: In the life of the central character, I try to show 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 journey 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, imprisonment, hope and loss and unexpected blessings, the growth of his creative powers as a poet, and the ultimate test of his life. This novel is about the crucifixion of a soul — and resurrection.
Q: Why did you write this particular book? What story are your trying to tell through it?
O'Brien: The original conception for Island was personal, in other words a novel that just grew in my imagination as I came to know people who had lived in former Yugoslavia during decisive moments of its history, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the same time, there was an interior spiritual prompting, quite strong, a sense that the experience of these people has significance for the entire world. Both senses struck me simultaneously.
Q: In what sense does their story have significance for the world?
O’Brien: The 20th century was a period of crucifixion for many nations and peoples, not only because of geo-political reasons but also because a definitive stage in history was enacted before our eyes, a multi-dimensional one. The consistent religious persecution that always accompanied the crushing of genuine democratic aspirations in those nations had roots in existential strata deeper than ideology. The wars of the past century and those currently underway are, in essence, spiritual struggles. And it is far from over.
Q: When you say “spiritual” doesn’t this imply abstract concepts? How does the spiritual affect the powerful forces of nations, wars, economies, culture, and other factors that shape mankind’s future?
O’Brien: Man’s spiritual condition changes how he understands himself and the world around him. When a sufficient number of people are spiritually impoverished, or deformed, they can be motivated to unite into factions that work toward radical changes in society—and this effects negatively the entire human community when their “abstractions” work out their terrible logic. The revolutions and tyrannies of the 20th century provide ample evidence of this. Yet the decisive events of that era are not yet resolved, the effects go on. In the 21st century, new forms of the old beast are materializing in the contemporary world, but they are cosmeticized, disguised, masked.
Q: What is this mask, precisely?
O’Brien: I believe we must exercise great caution about any collectivist ideas that present themselves to the mind as solutions to “the problem of man.” I include in this category the new globalists' models of what is called universal “governance.” As all ideologues do, they offer us superficial either/or choices. Supposedly, one must choose between war and world government. They do not understand that globalism will not change the fundamental human condition. Globalism is ultra-nationalism expanded to a planetary scale, without the safety measures of cultural and religious diversity. World-reshapers are long familiar to those people who have lived through political experiments. The survivors have heightened awareness, good antennae: They understand that beneath the supposed humanitarianism of collectivists, in whatever guise they appear, you will always find a killer. Survivors know that presumption and arrogance over mankind brings forth, in time, the fruit of death.
Q: Do you know many survivors?
O’Brien: In my life I have known many people who suffered under Fascism and Soviet Communism. I also have close friendships with a number of Croatian people who are surely heroes, and some of them quite possibly genuine saints. Though the republics of former-Yugoslavia have not received the public attention in the West that other nations suffering under Communist regimes have received, its story is unique and informative. For several decades, Yugoslavia was incorrectly viewed in the West as a benign form of Communist government, Tito’s “socialism with a human face.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The illusion was created by massive propaganda, carefully engineered cultural impressionism for export abroad, and the corrupt motives of some Western governments, which had powerful political and financial investments in their so-called friendship with the Tito regime. When it crumbled, new forms of hell broke loose. I believe that what took place in those lands east of the Adriatic is a microcosm of the ongoing war that will last until the end of time.
Q: What is it about dehumanizing situations — such as those in this book — which can be instrumental in helping or inspiring people to retain their faith and family identity, and perhaps even affirm it?
O'Brien: When human beings are assaulted by radically dehumanizing experiences, as individuals or as part of systemic catastrophes, each of us is put to a fundamental test of character, our core belief about what really goes on in the universe. In such situations, man without God feels that he can rely only on himself, or on politics as pseudo-salvation. By contrast, man in union with God experiences a transcending hope, and a gradual union with Christ. Little by little he learns that his sufferings are redemptive. Easy to say, much harder to live. In fact, the blows of radical evil put the soul to an ultimate test.
Q: What is this test and how does one react to such a test?
O’Brien: One either collapses inwardly and withdraws, escaping further into the realm of the autonomous self, the world of fear and self-preservation at all costs, regardless of what is betrayed. Conversely, one strikes outward in rage, strives to seize the weapons of death in order to overcome death. Both solutions are inevitably short-lived and breed more forms of destruction. The third way is Christ's way—one which is open to all of us, but which is impossible to discover, let alone live fully, without an ever-deepening union with Jesus. It is a way that is neither passive nor aggressive. But to find this way, man must begin to learn, at least at a fundamental human level, that he is more than a clever animal or a cell in a collective. In our times, man no longer knows who he is, cannot apprehend his eternal value, because historical and social forces all around him define him to himself in tragically stunted terms, minimize or negate his value for the sake of “the People” or variations on a perceived “common good.” This is as true in so-called democracies that are based in materialism as it is for overtly oppressive regimes. Only in Christ can we discover who we really are; only in Christ can we discover the paths to authentic common goods.
Q: Are there relatives, friends, or people you've actually known on whom this story is based?
O'Brien: Many of the sub-plots and secondary stories and characters, and numerous details of crucial scenes, were told to me by the people who experienced them. The background historical settings are more the fruit of three years of extensive research. Again, because of the massive amount of revisionist history regarding those times, it was absolutely necessary to cross-check every detail, and then cross-check the sources. This process was painstaking, yet highly instructive for me, because it revealed something about the nature of disinformation in our times, the distortion of historical facts and their significance by sources in both East and West. It was, in an empirical way, very important for me to meet many Croatian and Slovenian families, whose uncles, fathers, brothers, had been slaughtered in Partisan death-pits. Some escaped to tell about it once they reached the West. Only since 1991 has the extent of the mass murders at Bleiburg and Maribor and also in the forested regions just south of the Austrian border begun to come to light as more and more mass graves are discovered. I am not referring to the later genocide committed by the Serbs in 1991-95, but to the genocide committed immediately after WWII by the government of Yugoslavia. Here in Canada, I personally know six families in exile who lost family members through that wholesale slaughter. Hundreds of thousands of unarmed people, a large portion of whom were civilians, were exterminated by Tito's Partisans with the knowledge of the Allied forces. Later, the concentration camps on Yugoslav soil were established. In one of the worst, Goli Otok, for example, it is estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 political prisoners and religious prisoners of conscience died under conditions of extreme brutality.
Q: What can people learn through reading this work of fiction about the effects of disastrous global events of our times?
O'Brien: It is estimated by human rights watchers that more than 170 million people died at the hands of their own governments during the 20th century. This is a sobering statistic. It is not paranoia to ponder the possibility that Statism, especially in its social revolutionary forms, by its very nature negates what is most human in man, his absolute value, his eternal value I should add. Whenever his ultimate worth as an individual person is denied, the whole of society is damaged, because the very architecture of genuine human community has been damaged at its foundations. In Europe and North America, state-sanctioned and even state-funded murder of pre-birth children, as well as the growing practice of euthanasia of the elderly and infirm, are ominous signs. Yet we tend to minimize what these signs really mean because we presume, quite naïvely, that we are living in a democracy, and we endlessly talk about it as if it were a permanent fixture of our world. What the survivors of the wars and tyrannies of the past century have to teach us is that democracy can disappear more swiftly than we think, if certain psychological, economic, and cultural forces are manipulated by social engineers. I find it fascinating that the overwhelming majority of survivors whom I know are consistent in their warnings about the current state of the West.
Q: What warnings do they offer us?
O’Brien: They say practically with one voice that we are morally and spiritually unprepared to simply recognize, let alone resist, the accelerating corruption of our civilization. I am not so much speaking of threats posed by militant Islamicists or the very real dangers of an expansionist Communist China, but rather I’m referring to our own internal auto-demolition. As a number of Catholic philosophers have warned, notably Josef Pieper and Etienne Gilson, and the historian Christopher Dawson, the rhetoric about freedom and democracy always increases as the real thing declines. Our capacity to exercise civilized co-responsibility—to live in a free and responsible way has been steadily declining since the late 1960’s, and this social revolution has primarily come about by the top-down imposition of radically immoral laws. We must not presume that democracies are immune from degeneration into totalitarianism. It is also worth considering that a totalitarianism with a “democratic” face may bring about a more comprehensive and long-range corruption of what is best in the human community, because it can always argue that it is not what, in fact, it is.
Q: So this novel is a warning about new forms of totalitarianism?
O’Brien: Unlike some of my earlier novels that explicitly warned about the new totalitarianism, Island does so implicitly. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have warned us explicitly about the dangers we face. Although in this novel I dramatize some of the dangers they have discussed, I do not so much teach or preach as I try to reveal a living truth about each and every human person. To violate any one is to violate all. Moreover, such violation is an assault against the fatherhood of God. My objective is to raise the questions that are absolutely necessary for the sustaining of a truly human civilization.
Q: What are some of the specific spiritual insights you're trying to bring forth for people reading this book?
O'Brien: I hope to communicate the truth that man is born into, and lives in, and dies in a war zone—the War that will last until the end of time. Equally, that the world is inexpressibly beautiful and full of unceasing wonders. And that within ourselves, and within each other, the greatest wonders are to be found. I try to show through the unfolding of providence in the narrative that man is not locked into a mechanistic universe, that he is not a number or a cog, but rather a phenomenon created for love, for life in a community of persons. I try to show through the central character that we must never lose hope.
Q: Hope is the subject of Pope Benedict’s latest encyclical. How does your novel reinforce his teachings?
O’Brien: What Benedict has taught with such clarity and strength in Spe Salvi, I hope I have incarnated in the form of fiction. My central character Josip Lasta suffers grievous harm because of the blindness of men of power. He endures trials that would, I think, destroy most of us, and indeed he comes very close to despair. The Holy Father has frequently spoken of our need to see beneath the surface appearances of our times, to look up and beyond the prison walls of contemporary false solutions to the human condition. To recognize the lies and the despair beneath much of the grand rhetoric of the new world order. Both he and John Paul II were unhesitating in their analysis of what is destructive in all forms of materialism—including Marxist-socialist and certain Western Capitalist forms of it, by which I mean Capitalism without conscience, an anti-Personalist form of Capitalism. In contrast, the Holy Fathers have urged us to think with the mind of Christ, and not with the mind of social revolution. They teach us to call God our Father, to be in relationship with Him as a Person, and in this way to come to know ourselves as beloved persons—with unique identity, with names—not as numbers.
Q: How can we find the mind of Christ?
O’Brien: By seeking him earnestly and prayerfully, by letting go of our ideologies and our obsession with security and comfort, which all too often function as idols, consciously and subconsciously, that block grace and reject true vision. We must wake up—and part of this awakening will demand the self-honesty to see how far we have been indoctrinated by false concepts of man’s nature. Of particular concern to me is the way we in the West form our opinions and judgments about all things human and social, and how our perceptions of practically everything have been warped by materialism. We must understand that the sane and reasonable ground (where surely most of us want to be) can never be the precise mid-point on a horizontal line between two ideological or perceptual poles. Poles are always shifting. Cultural poles, with all their power to influence politics, are especially unreliable. And the poles in men's minds are more unstable than these. The true center is above. Right choices, right politics, healthy cultural life, will flow from that re-orientation to the hierarchical nature of the cosmos. May I say it again? — The true center is above.
Q: Are you working on another book?
O'Brien: I thought I had written everything I could possibly write, and was happy to return to relative silence. Completing The Island of the World was rather like giving birth to a child, as much as a man can understand that. But as with human love and fecundity, life never ceases to yearn towards fruitfulness. In recent months I've been experiencing a new story upwelling in my heart and imagination. I've only put a brief outline and a few crucial scenes on paper at this point, but the inner fountain just doesn't dry up. The provisional title is My Dear Theophilus. I envision it as a novel about the man to whom the apostle Luke addressed his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Who was he?
I’m also pondering a sequel to my novel Fr. Elijah. This is something I promised myself I would never do, for all kinds of good reasons. But now this same upwelling of story is flooding my imagination. If it ever makes it into print, it will be about what happens to the priest Fr. Elijah when he goes down into Jerusalem to confront the Antichrist.
Curiously, I didn’t want to write any more books, and certainly never decided I would start another. They just arrived, unannounced.
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To order The Island of the World:
The Croatian language edition of this novel, titled Otok Svijeta, is being published by the Catholic publisher TRECI DAN in Zagreb, and will be available in early 2008.
Stara Cesta 25
10251 Hrvatski Leskovac
The Italian language edition of this novel is being translated for publication in 2009 under the title L'Isola del Mondo, by Edizioni San Paolo, Milan.
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