In Paradise: A Novel by Peter Matthiessen. (Riverhead Books, 272 pp. $16 paper)
Three weeks after 86-year-old Peter Matthiessen died on April 5, 2014, what he knew would be his last book, In Paradise, was published. It was a week before Holocaust Remembrance Day. Who would have imagined that Matthiessen, the celebrated naturalist, cofounder of The Paris Review, political activist, Zen teacher and the only writer to win the National Book Award for both fiction and nonfiction would take on the Shoah. However, beginning in the 1990s, Matthiessen made three trips to Oswiecim, Poland, a place that is now back on the maps. Not too long ago, the Nazis made over the army stables and broad pastureland of this once heavily populated Jewish village and turned it into Auschwitz–Birkenau.
In Paradise centers on Clements Olin, a non-Jewish American academic who was born in Poland but whose father got him and his grandparents, members of the Christian aristocracy, out in time. That was about 50 years ago. Why would Olin, a respected scholar, go to Auschwitz in 1996?
What does it mean to “bear witness,” as does the group of 140 men and women he joins—Christians, Jews and a Palestinian, secular and religious? Tensions mount, words fail, emotions overwhelm the attendees, who are victims, countrymen of perpetrators and outsiders. All cry out about the putative origins of this evil, the extent to which the Nazi juggernaut against the Jews was aided and abetted by the Church, and the horrific ignorance (or denial) that attends the legacy of the Holocaust. As Olin asks a young Polish couple who give him a lift to the region, did they know that “nearly two thousand Jews were murdered in this country after the war”? No, they did not.
As the retreat gets under way, conflicts emerge, silences, cold fury and then, toward the end of the weekend, an inexplicable fleeting joy. But how to make sense of such a hell, let alone feel love for another human being, for humanity? Olin is personally challenged on this score. Matthiessen’s final words are daring, provocative and heartbreaking.
In Paradise is a stunner because of the quality of Matthiessen’s prose. With its pulsing sentences and sarcastic parenthetical qualifications, its shockingly effective imagery and its seamless mix of third-person present-tense narration and interior monologue, Matthiessen’s Holocaust story unfolds in a way that’s original and moving, not to mention ironic (the title comes from the Gospel of Luke).
It is no small achievement to revisit this profound and tragic event that has already had—some would say, more than had—its share of memoirs, biographies, scholarly tomes, articles and films.
Matthiessen said he always wanted “to comment on this global catastrophe,” but that as “a non-Jewish American journalist” he felt unqualified, that he had no right. But he came to feel that by approaching the subject as a novelist, as an artist, he could do it. As a character in the book remarks, “The only way to understand such evil is to reimagine it. And the only way to reimagine it is through art…. You cannot portray it realistically.”
And yet, like Primo Levi and other intellectuals and artists invoked in the novel who were survivors, that conviction is cynically subverted.