In Peter Matthiessen’s layered and thought-provoking In Paradise, Clements Olin, a Polish-American academic, visits Auschwitz. He is loosely attached to a contingent of visitors on a spiritual retreat, all of them meditating and “bearing witness” to the atrocity. It’s 1996 and the Holocaust still seems close. The possibility of healthy survivors, perpetrators and witnesses is still probable.
Olin, a scholar of the poet Tadeusz Borowski, is a distant kind of man, divorced and childless, close to no one though superficially successful with women. He’s visiting Auschwitz for reasons that aren’t clear, even to him.
Early on in the novel, Olin is standing on the railway platform where people intended for the crematoria were unpacked from cattle cars, when he’s confronted by an angry fellow participant who picks him as a writer. Olin’s challenger asks him: “You got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain’t been written up yet in maybe ten thousand fucking books?”
It’s a fair question, and Olin hasn’t much of an answer. “I’m not qualified to write about it,” he admits. “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
There are two struggles here: Olin’s and Matthiessen’s. As the story progresses, Clements Olin finds he’s not as disinterested as he’d thought. He unpicks his feelings about his long lost Polish mother and finds himself strongly drawn to a young nun struggling with obedience. Perhaps he does have a right to be there, he thinks, beyond the normal engagement of an empathic human. Or perhaps being an empathic human is reason enough.
The idea of Matthiessen’s “right” to approach the topic is just as fascinating. When Olin thinks that “efforts at interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience [is] an impertinence”, we can feel the author behind him. When one of the retreat participants laments that she was unprepared for the horror, that “not even that movie about the kind German enamel manufacturer in Cracow who saved his ... team of lovable Jews” helped her anticipate the reality of Auschwitz, we understand Matthiessen’s fine line between tribute and exploitation.
This is not to say the horror is avoided. In Paradise is not an intellectual analysis of appropriation. It’s all here, from mothers denying their children to improve their own chances of survival, to a “big pile of little shoes”. There are “faint claw marks made by human finger bones on the concrete ceiling”. In the barracks, “a wistful child has scrawled on the wall: ‘No butterflies live here.’ ”
It’s as heartbreaking as you would imagine.
The real story, though, is the processing of the events, their meaning and their ownership. Yes, there are characters rolled out to deliver Matthiessen’s thoughts (an Israeli helpfully calls a young Palestinian a “raghead” to underline that no one is truly blameless, an American equates her own experience of schoolyard bullying with that of children arriving at the camp to show the self-centredness of ostentatious grief), but none of this is cynical. It’s all Matthiessen himself, groping for answers. It’s like watching this most genuine, open-hearted of writers tease out his reasoning right before our eyes.
The subject of Olin’s research, the poet Borowski, survived Auschwitz working in the medical experiment barracks only to kill himself six years after the end of the war. He was 28 and his first child had been born three days earlier. The “bearers of witness” on the retreat with Olin consider survival and guilt and blame, faith and the ability to endure, and even the role of provocation in the historical mistreatment of Jews. Were the guards and their descendants also victims? Is any country on earth truly innocent in the way it treats those it deems inferior? (The novel brings up Srebrenica; I think of Myall Creek.) At one point, Olin and some of the others experience a strange transcendent joy: is this a normal response to being alive so close to death, or a perversity?
In the end, it’s the grappling with the questions that is more important than the answers, and more important than either is the questioner’s intent. “It’s only a matter of time...” muses one of the retreat participants, “Then come your package tours and jumbo buses, youth hostels, snack bars, kosher fast food, souvenir tchotchkes – the whole matzoh ball. And See Historic Auschwitz postcards: Awesome, man! Check it out! Signed, Yr pal, Schlomo.” This is a vision that Australians on the eve of the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli understand too well. Honour the dead and exit through the gift shop.
Perhaps the thing that “qualifies” Matthiessen is, after all, his skill as one of America’s foremost nature writers. Olin walks on a nearby meadow, “the site of a mass grave used when the overloaded ovens fell behind schedule ... under these heavy grasses glazed with ice the ground is soft, unstable ... quake(s) in a sickening way beneath his boots like a great grassy jelly.” At the camp itself, “the black wrought ironwork of the gate arch, gleaming in the rain” still says Arbeit Macht Frei.
Everything is evocative: the feel of “old rails embedded in the asphalt” under the tyres of a car, in the distance “delicate as netting, high fences drift forth through a brownish fog” alongside “the hazy outline of the main sentry tower”. “Vast emptiness, terminal silence, under a gray overcast withholding snow.” We see Auschwitz clearly now, as beautiful and sacred as any cathedral or wild mountain.
For this unimaginable suffering, In Paradise lets no one off the hook and lets us all off the hook. Matthiessen has won the prestigious US National Book award three times, the only writer awarded for both fiction and nonfiction. In Paradise is his final work. He died at the beginning of April, aged 86. LS
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Peter Matthiessen, In Paradise". Subscribe here.