In the winter of 1996, more than a hundred women and men of diverse nationality, background, and belief gather at the site of a former concentration camp for an unprecedented purpose: a weeklong retreat during which they will offer prayer and witness at the crematoria and meditate in all weathers on the selection platform, while eating and sleeping in the quarters of the Nazi officers who, half a century before, sent more than a million Jews to their deaths. Read more...
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In the winter of 1996, more than a hundred women and men of diverse nationality, background, and belief gather at the site of a former concentration camp for an unprecedented purpose: a weeklong retreat during which they will offer prayer and witness at the crematoria and meditate in all weathers on the selection platform, while eating and sleeping in the quarters of the Nazi officers who, half a century before, sent more than a million Jews to their deaths. Clements Olin, an American academic of Polish descent, has come along, ostensibly to complete research on the death of a survivor, even as he questions what a non-Jew can contribute to the understanding of so monstrous a catastrophe. As the days pass, tensions, both political and personal, surface among the participants, stripping away any easy pretense to healing or closure. Finding himself in the grip of emotions and impulses of bewildering intensity, Olin is forced to abandon his observer's role and to embrace a history his family has long suppressed--and with it the yearnings and contradictions of being fully alive.
"In Paradise "is a brave and deeply thought-provoking novel by one of our most stunningly accomplished writers.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-01-13
- Reviewer: Staff
Early in this novel by Matthiessen (Shadow Country), which follows a meditative retreat at Auschwitz, main character Clements Olin thinks, “Nobody knows whom to be angry with in such a place.” Indeed, the story centers on the search for understanding on the part of the retreaters, and their attempt to spiritually confront the evil that occurred at the site. What makes Matthiessen’s latest stand out from the scores of other Holocaust books is that Olin, a non-Jewish academic of Polish descent, is aware of the vast Holocaust literature (“You got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain’t been written up yet in maybe ten thousand fucking books?” someone asks him)—and feels self-doubt to the point of defeat about what he’s doing in Auschwitz in the first place. More concretely, Olin is there for two reasons: one is “personal” and “too sentimental” and isn’t revealed until later in the book; the other is to figure out why Polish author Tadeusz Borowski, who survived the death camp, later committed suicide at the peak of his fame, three days after the birth of his daughter. The strongest sections relate to these more concrete missions—passages about Olin’s family history, in particular, stand out. But the novel focuses mainly on the abstract: what it feels like to spend days on end at the death camp—the frustration, alienation, and otherworldliness of it. Throughout, there’s a hum of absurdity underneath (“Who sets out winter food for little birds in such a place?”), and at times it comes to the surface in the form of directionless bickering among the retreaters, only to fade back again into the landscape, which, it seems to Olin, is always in winter. Agent: Neil Olson, Donadio & Olson, Inc. (Apr.)
Self-examination in the shadow of the Holocaust
Who risks the most when a literary lion well into his ninth decade writes a novel? The legend, who is putting his legacy on the line, or the longtime reader, who shoulders the load of vicarious shame in the event the book is a mess?
With In Paradise, readers can rest assured the risk is worthwhile. In fact, it feels that Peter Matthiessen’s more than 60 years of professional writing has led to this, his most deft exploration into that crimped, fallible piece of meat called the human heart. In a dark, powerful and relevant novel, Matthiessen takes on Auschwitz and its legacy.
Polish-born Clements Olin is a middle-aged American poet. His family fled Poland as the Nazis were invading. In 1996, he returns, joining scores of other visitors at the notorious death camp. For a week, they will pray, meditate and bear witness to the atrocities that took place there. They will sleep in the barracks where the guards once slept. They will try, ultimately, to make sense of the unknowable horror that affected their own lives.
Clements is a self-proclaimed observer. He listens to the arguments about good and bad Germans, the complicity of the Polish citizenry, the guilt and responsibility Jews have in their own annihilation. He strikes up a dangerously close-to-improper friendship with a Catholic novitiate, a joyless young woman whose outspoken condemnation of her church’s passive role in the Holocaust gets her into trouble.
But Clements is a sham. A gradual reveal shows us he has more ties to the camp than first thought. He is even more of a searcher than the others. He is looking for his past, and for answers to questions he knows he should have asked long ago.
It may be in dubious taste to refer to an 86-year-old as among the last of a dying breed, but Matthiessen, a three-time National Book Award winner—twice for the same book, The Snow Leopard—self-confessed spy and co-founder of the prestigious Paris Review, has made a career of following his curiosity around the globe. A naturalist as much as a novelist, he’s explored the animal kingdom in places so remote the fauna outnumbered the people. That is especially pertinent now, when a whole generation of authors considers the L train from Brooklyn into Manhattan a schlep.
This powerful, necessary novel is hard to take, yet impossible to turn away from. It doesn’t shy away from questioning the depths of human depravity, nor is it ashamed to admit that there are no real answers.