When Matthiessen’s last novel was published just days after he died in April of 2014, a reviewer on Good Reads had the audacity to complain that “In Paradise” was not entertaining. Given that the book is about the Holocaust, it seems inconceivable and impertinent to suggest that a livelier, lighter tone should have been adopted. Matthiessen, a Zen Buddhist, participated in three Zen retreats at the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and this novel is the culmination of his experiences there.
Like Matthiessen, his protagonist, M. Clements Olin, has travelled from America to Poland to unofficially attend a retreat at Auschwitz. As a professor of Slavic Literature specializing in works by Holocaust survivors, Olin is all too aware of man’s incapacity to offer fresh insight into the horrors of the camps, and of his own deficit of personal experience.
Olin is ostensibly attending the retreat to research the role of the death camps in the work of Tadeusz Borowski, author of the brilliant, but controversial “This way for the gas, ladies and gentlemen.” With Olin are 140 other participants, a diverse group of men and women from around the world representing an array of cultural and religious backgrounds. All have come to pray, meditate and pay homage to the camp’s victims on the selection platform at Auschwitz. Over the period of the week-long retreat, personal and political tensions arise, and Olin, who at first considered himself detached and merely an observer, finds he can no longer indulge his aloofness, becoming enmeshed in the testimonies and debates about the nature of evil and the culpability of the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Pius XII.
For all its seriousness, “In Paradise” is extremely readable: a respectfully written account. Peter Matthiessen will be much missed.
Rosemary Melville is a Library Technician for the Thunder Bay Public Library