In Paradise

A novel about a guided tour through Nazi concentration camps makes for a haunting end to the life and career of 20th-century master Peter Matthiessen.

In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen, Penguin Group, 256 pp.

Clements Olin is late getting to Auschwitz. In the winter of 1996 he has flown to Cracow from the United States, where he is a professor of Slavic literature, to join a group of 140 pilgrims from 12 nations who will spend a week in meditation and prayer at the death camp. But Olin misses the last train and has to get an evening ride with a young Polish couple. Though from the area, they are latecomers to the knowledge about Auschwitz and the adjacent Birkenau that Olin brings with him from his studies of the Holocaust. The next day Olin is also late for the first guided tour because he wanted to first feel the atmosphere of the camp alone. At 55, he thinks to himself, he has always been alone, no mother, a suicide for a father, only briefly married, no children, and "the day grows late."

This late-life novel by Peter Matthiessen – whose death at the age of 86 was reported late last week – is permeated by what Harold Bloom called "belatedness," literal and literary. Olin is writing a book about Tadeusz Borowski, who survived Auschwitz to write "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" but killed himself at the age of 28. Olin also refers to others who wrote about the Holocaust – Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, Viktor Frankl, Czeslaw Miloscz.

Matthiessen participated in three of these group pilgrimages, the first in 1996, but put off writing about Auschwitz, he said, because he isn't Jewish. He found a way to do so, it seems, by making belatedness a subject of In Paradise. Almost everyone alive today missed the train to Auschwitz. Like the young Poles who give Olin a ride, Matthiessen implies, many contemporaries know little about the camps or hope to reduce the knowledge they do have.  Some young Israeli characters in the novel want to let the Holocaust recede into the distant past. Several German characters come to Auschwitz for absolution so they, too, can be free.  For Olin’s roommate, a Swedish evolutionary biologist named Anders Stern, Auschwitz has no special character. It is just one of many occasions of mass murder in his study of the long history of mass murders. 

"In Paradise" is initially like a primer for those who know only "Schindler’s List," to which a character condescendingly refers. Matthiessen describes the rail platforms, the buildings, and the objects left behind by the dead. His Germans, Poles, Israelis, and American Jews deliver conflicting responses to the scene and history. Old hatreds break out, familiar excuses bubble up. Clichés and sentimentalities abound. Survivors’ memories vie with latecomers’ imaginations. “Survivor guilt” is debated along with Middle Eastern politics. Olin says of Auschwitz, "I’m not qualified to write about it. I wouldn’t know where to begin," but Matthiessen knows to start with basic facts and arguments some readers will know, although many will not. 

The first third of "In Paradise" is a cacophony of voices, sometimes attached to the names of speakers, sometimes to their ethnic group, but rarely to a person who becomes a developed character. The rest of the book is more conventionally novelistic as Matthiessen presents the back stories and present desires of Olin, of an elderly Romanian-American Jew named Earwig, and a young Polish woman training to be a Franciscan nun. Olin’s grandparents, members of a persecuted nobility, and their son Alexei fled the Nazis, but left behind in the town of Oswiecim Alexei’s girlfriend, then pregnant with Olin. He was smuggled to America as an infant, but his mother stayed on during the war and disappeared. One reason Olin has come to Poland is to find what happened to her. It’s not much of a spoiler – because the story is predictable from early on – to reveal that he discovers she was Jewish and died at Auschwitz. So 50 years late, Olin knows who he is and why he should be at the camp.

Plausible by itself, Olin’s story seems contrived after Matthiessen doubles it with the history of Earwig, who also discovers a secret from his past by coming to Auschwitz. Accidentally abandoned when very young by his Jewish parents, he doesn’t know his name, is adopted by Gypsies, steals to survive the war, and has spent the last 40 years searching for his family identity. David Clements Olinski became Clements Olin. Earwig invented his name, perhaps to fit his cynicism, which he inflicts on most of the other pilgrims. As a noun, "earwig" is an insect; as a verb, "earwig" means to fill the mind with prejudice through insinuations. Perhaps "In Paradise" has made me obsessed with belatedness, but Earwig’s wartime wanderings war and his scabrous nihilism recall Jerzy Kosinski and his novel "The Painted Bird."

If Olin is the chilly professor who learns to feel and Earwig the overheated autodidact who learns calm, the 30-something novice evades easy summary and becomes the stimulus for the novel’s late-blooming plot. Like the men, she has chosen her name: changing from Amalia to Catherine. A rebel in her convent, at Auschwitz she oscillates between defending her religion’s role in the Nazi regime and recognizing the Catholic church’s complicity in the Holocaust, between her vocation and her interest in Olin. Charmed by her ambivalences, Olin begins a flirtation or seduction that causes Catherine and him distress – and this reader some dismay.

It is hard to know why Matthiessen chose a romance in Hell to dominate the last third of "In Paradise." Perhaps the infatuation is the hopeful reverse of "Et in Arcadia ego." Or maybe, given his title, the attraction recalls the sin that banished Adam and Eve from paradise and, for Christians, introduced evil into the world. And there’s a third possibility. Earwig asks Olin, "You got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain’t been written up yet in maybe ten thousand fucking books?" Matthiessen’s "angle" may be his Zen Buddhism. The pilgrims’ leader is a Buddhist psychologist nicknamed Ben Lama who tells the group. "We immerse ourselves and are transformed" by sitting still and meditating at Auschwitz. Ben Lama has both acute perceptions and serene detachment. He would seem to agree with an apocryphal text that has Christ on the cross saying, "We are in Paradise right now." For the enlightened, anywhere is paradise, the creation one. Though also a Buddhist, Olin fails to transcend attachment. Not satisfied with knowledge of his mother, he wants something more or someone to take with him from Auschwitz. 

If I’m right in this reading, Matthiessen holds his protagonist to a very rigorous spiritual standard but one that seems an unusual, if not original, "angle" on Holocaust memory. Immersion, Ben Lama suggests, leads to true compassion for and identification with the victims, which should lead to surrender of the personal ego. Matthiessen dramatizes the effect of this surrender with an impromptu dance near the end of the pilgrims’ stay. Not all join in, but those who do, including Olin and Catherine, feel a “nameless joy,” a sense of communal transcendence – of paradise. I assume Matthiessen knew the origin of his title word is Persian for "walled enclosure." After Olin gets outside the walls of Auschwitz, his personal neediness reasserts itself. Perhaps Catherine will keep alive the paradisial experience, but we don’t know her future within or outside the walls of the convent.

Although professor Olin is also a poet, Matthiessen gives him little verbal creativity, as if words themselves suffered from belatedness. Told through Olin’s point of view in the third person, "In Paradise" is sharper in the tortured dialogues of the pilgrims than in its depiction of Olin’s buttoned-down consciousness.  He thinks in familiar metaphors – hell, ogres, ghosts – as if the banality of evil caused a banality of expression. Olin dislikes but cannot transform the sound of his own voice when he speaks to his fellow pilgrims:

"Years before, half-listening to his car radio, he’d been assailed by a voice as aggravating as the pinpoint racket of the small hard-shelled insect that whirred its way one summer day into his inner ear.... What it was, in fact, was his own recorded voice, reciting his poetry.  He hears that disembodied voice say now, as if speaking from afar, 'You are mistaken, sir. I speak as a Polish Jew.'"

Even this dramatic statement is corrected by a woman who is much more a Pole and a Jew than Olin. Later "he is sick to death of words." Matthiessen's lastwords about Olin are "he sits motionless, broken-brained and wholly brokenhearted." As Buddhist and poet, Olin is a failure, but possibly an instructive one.

Although making belatedness a theme is not ultimately a satisfying aesthetic solution to the condition, "In Paradise" is an earnest, informed, often insightful, and sometimes subtle novel, and I recommend it to anyone who feels guilty about their ignorance of the Holocaust.

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