Peter Matthiessen died only days before the publication of his 33rd book, and it would be tempting to judge his work in a softer light because of it. Fortunately, that’s not necessary. In Paradise, Matthiessen’s first work of fiction since 2008’s Shadow Country, is based on his real-life experience attending a spiritual retreat at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp on the outskirts of Oswiecim, Poland. The book is a bewildering and cerebral meditation on good and evil, and it is powerful even in the face of skeptical readers who might scoff at such broad philosophical platitudes.
In 1996, Matthiessen, a longtime Zen Buddhist, attended his first of three spiritual retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau. An arrival at the most famous site of modern genocide to spend a week “bearing witness”—often sitting by the train tracks at Birkenau and chanting the names of the dead—is already an incomprehensible burden, what retreat leader Bernie Glassman has called “a social koan.” And so for years, Matthiessen tried to capture that feeling of being, as he writes in In Paradise, “broken-brained and wholly brokenhearted.” Unable to find a place for it in a non-fiction narrative, and unable to justify a non-Jewish American journalist writing about the Holocaust, he found a place for this reflection in the fictional In Paradise, about Clements Olin, a Polish-born American man who makes a pilgrimage to the site where his mother was likely exterminated. He has only his broken Polish and a 50-year-old photograph to remember her by.
Like Olin, the other participants in this retreat—who have gathered with the loose agreement to bear witness to the suffering and death that have taken place there—have a difficult time articulating exactly what has brought them to the site of a Nazi concentration and extermination camp. Reading even a fictionalized telling of this retreat brings to mind the intellectual turmoil one must undergo to make such a pilgrimage. Why preserve this place of genocide? Why spend a week keeping vigil in the women’s barracks?
Matthiessen’s writing flexes the same kind of muscularity as others of his generation—Vonnegut, Styron, Doctorow—but his devotion to Zen Buddhism results in a spiritual journey that’s palatable even to the non-spiritual. His characters, even Olin, are kept at a distance from the reader, but that’s because the book is only ostensibly about individual people. But neither are these characters simply holding a banner for an archetype or metaphor; they are fully realized people, and within them are the kernels of horror and joy shared by all of humanity. This is most slyly encapsulated in the book’s uncomfortably ironic title, which comes from the crucifixion story in the Gospel Of Luke, when Jesus tells one of the men nailed to a cross next to him that “today you will be with me in paradise.”
It takes an unparalleled voice to transcend the weight of the Holocaust—not just the burden of its inconceivable evils, but also the mountain of books that have been written about it. Perhaps it’s fitting that this voice comes from a non-Jewish American Zen Buddhist: someone removed enough from the Holocaust that he can start to work out what effect this site of profound malevolence has, even on people untouched by its gas chambers. It’s a very Peter Matthiessen thing to do, taking a notion far too big to fit in a book, and crafting a sober narrative that outlines the concept of evil and underscores the specificity of the human capability for it. Rather than shoehorning broad themes into a narrow fiction, he uses the narrative to rub salt in the wound that humanity has brought upon itself, exposing its goodness while decrying its evil. Matthiessen writes a cruel, peculiar romance for his main character, but he also makes it possible for Olin to experience ecstasy here. As In Paradise also explores what it means to find love in the midst of these manmade ashes, it also questions what responsibility humanity has as the final reverberations of the Holocaust fade away with its last survivors.