The story takes place in the Balkans. What inspired you to situate the novel in this place?
O’Brien: The seed of the novel was planted several years ago, in 1995, when I was writing my novel, “Father Elijah” [Posljednja vremena]. Without warning, a fictional character appeared in my imagination, though he was one I had not expected, named Brother Jakov, a Franciscan friar who had survived terrible experiences during the war of independence, 1991 – 1995. Years later, my books were translated into several foreign languages, among them Croatian. The publisher Verbum in Split, in conjunction with the Catholic apostolate MI, sponsored my visit to Croatia, where I gave several talks throughout the country. That was the first of four journeys I have made to the Balkan region. As I heard more and more stories told to me by Croats in both Croatia and Bosnia i Herzegovina, I began to realize that an enormous catastrophe had occurred here—more terrible and more significant than we in the West realized. I had read much about it, of course, but I learned that the media of Europe and North America had not really seen beneath the surface. I began to understand that the situation was more than a geo-political crisis, more than the horror of genocide. I saw it as a spiritual crisis that had consequences for the whole world. In prayer it came to me that I must tell this story in a way that people of the nations outside former-Yugoslavia would come to a deeper understanding. Readers would then see that your sufferings are representative of the cosmic war that will continue until the end of time—and is a warning about what will come to all the world, if mankind does not repent of its sins.
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.
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 breaks loose, 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.