Sunday, October 10, 2010

Locus Focus - Goli Otok

A bar of light is crossing the floor.

"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."

We were specifically made for transcendence, and there is no sadness, loss, suffering, pain or trauma that cannot be transcended. The true understanding of this though, has not so much to do with the "power of the human spirit" or "the will to endure" alone; it is about every suffering, fully experienced, being enwrapped or engulfed in the larger movement of God (Who suffered as one of us), like strains being taken up into a larger orchestra - and thus finding our own free movements therein. The "sea of being" in which we have our own being is infinitely too large for us to sense, apart from faith: it can be experienced as either a horrific abyss or as God's very containment of us, which is perfect freedom.

In his historical novel Island of the World, Michael D. O'Brien uses the lunging and rising of the swallow as this image of transcendence. And if the novel has transcendence as its overarching theme, it by no means avoids passages that are extremely difficult and distressing to read. I have not read another novel that has, quite literally, brought me to my knees to thank God for my life and everything in it, good and bad, and to ask forgiveness for having ever complained and despaired...
"From the wharf the prisoners are marched up a rocky path to a cluster of low cement buildings divided by a paved avenue leading into the hills. More guards are waiting there, in two lines, a dozen on each side. Many are smirking in expectation, as if to welcome the prisoners. Truncheons are in the hands of all. The pavement is splotched everywhere with old stains, bleached by the sun."
Josip Lasta, the central character, is taken captive for being involved with an underground publication resistant to the Communist government of what is now former Yugoslavia. His wife and unborn child are taken from him the same night he is captured. Josip, after days of brutal interrogation, is taken to an island of which nothing that goes on there can be seen from the water.

""Skin the rabbit!" shouts one of the guards. Josip is last in the file of prisoners, and he sees what is coming. One by one, each prisoner is stripped naked, then shoved between the guards.

"Run, rabbit!"

The first prisoner staggers forward. A hail of truncheon blows fall on him from both sides. He stumbles, cannot rise, and is kicked again and again until he gets up on all fours, then crawls onward under furious blows. When he is through the gauntlet, he collapses on the pavement, blood seeping from beneath his body.

"Run, rabbit!"

The next prisoner refuses to move, falls to his knees, sobbing. Immediately, the guards converge on him and beat him. Blood spatters everywhere, the thumping on human flesh does not cease. They stand back. The man is dead. Two guards drag the body back toward the wharf by the ankles.


The next prisoner runs--and ends like the first. Now it is Josip's turn.

"Run, rabbit!"

He is propelled toward the truncheons with a kick to his backside. Staggering forward, he feels every strike upon his body as the storm hits, sees his own blood splattering ahead of him, his blood flowing into the blood of others, all mingled.

"This is a strong one! A big one too!" Laughter.

Now his progress is slower, each step purchased at the price of countless blows. Everything is exposed, everything receives its portion. He staggers, falls; the guards step close to finish him off. He pushes himself up on hands and knees, then rises. His feet slipping on blood, he lurches forward a meter, then another.

Now he is through the lines and collapses beside the other prisoners.

"Let's send him back again."

"No, don't waste an ox like this. He'll be good for work!"

"Let's see what he can take."

"Back you go, rabbit!"

They drag him to his feet and spin him around until he is reeling from dizziness.

"Run, rabbit!"

He staggers back the way he came, one step, another step, under a rain of truncheons and boot-kicks. He collapses onto the pavement where he began. They converge on him.

"Finish him off! A big lunch!"

"No, no, look at him. He can keep going!"

"One more time, rabbit!"

Slowly, slowly--rising on hands and knees--then wobbling upright. Again the blows rain down.

"Last lap!"

Shuffling forward, centimeter by centimeter, bending under the down-striking blows and the up-striking blows. A rib cracks. His mouth is gore--teeth are broken, and he spits them out.

Finally, he is down on his belly and cannot move--he wants the guards to complete their work, send him out of this life--please, please kill me! But something inside him will not permit it. He can no longer rise on hands and knees. He slithers forward through pools of blood…"
Such is the introduction to this hard place. Later, after long recovery, Josip gets a more detailed measure of the area:

"The compound contains several barracks grouped around larger administrative buildings in the bottom of a wide ravine, all enclosed within chain-link fences. It is surrounded by rocky white hills, not very high, but sufficient to hide it from outside view. A few stunted bushes cling to whatever traces of barren soil hide within crevasses on the slopes. Otherwise, it is a lunar landscape.

"Nothing grows here", Josip says in a puzzled tone.

"This is Goli Otok", says Propo, "the naked island."
In Goli Otok the prisoners labour in the limestone quarries; food and water and rest are absolutely minimal:

"The atmosphere is one of constant fear and subservience, obedience and exhaustion. Humiliations are part of the day's routine. For example, the prisoners must wash their own excrement out in the yard and sort from it bits of undigested grain, which is then reboiled and eaten. All are disgusted by this practice, yet few refrain from eating the results.

"It's a degradation", explains Prof one evening. They are standing by a window gazing out at the yard as the sorting and re-cooking is in process. "They do not let us forget that we are animals owned by the State."

"Lower than animals", says Scova with a scowl.

"We are not animals", says Tata.
For a Scary Setting, this barren place of hardship and cruelty proves to also be the forge for resistance, sanctity, the facing of the hatred in one's own soul, and ultimately transcendence in a no less painful and trying escape.


Enbrethiliel said...


Good grief, Stilwell! This must be the month's scariest setting, hands down! It sounds harrowing--a true "hell on earth" from which there is no hope of rescue and only hope of death. My heart breaks for Josip.

Paul Stilwell said...

As with your comment about Full Tilt, this ain't even half of what's in the novel.

If you get a chance to read this book, I highly recommend it. Josip is a great character, and one's heart is with him the whole time.