How to bear witness to the Holocaust is the subject of Peter Matthiessen’s final novel (he died earlier this year), In Paradise. One hundred and forty people – nuns and priests, Jews, Buddhists, survivors, academics, Germans, Poles, Americans and Israelis – gather at Auschwitz in the late 1990s for a week-long retreat. They sleep in the dormitories that previously housed the camp guards, they file past the piles of hair and baby shoes in the museum, meditate sitting cross-legged on the selection platform before a meagre lunch of rough bread and thin soup, and assemble in the auditorium in the evenings to give voice to their individual and collective experience. We follow this from the perspective of Clements Olin, an American academic of Polish descent, who has joined the retreat to facilitate his research into the life and writings of Tadeusz Borowski, a survivor of the camp who committed suicide at the age of twenty-eight by sticking his head in the gas oven. Little by little, Olin acknowledges a more personal motivation for being there as he uncovers uncomfortable aspects of his own family’s history.
Faced with such horror, who wouldn’t shy away?
The participants respond to their proximity to the slaughter in unexpected ways. Despite the chill of the weather, emotions are hot and raw. We witness their confusion, their anger, revenge and humiliation, openness and apathy, compassion and cruelty, and even – perhaps most shockingly – love and joy. But again and again we are reminded that there are no easy answers, that resolution and reconciliation are unattainable goals. And even if the participants themselves did develop through the experience, how could those gains be sustained within the conflicting values of ordinary life?
The day is not far off, he supposes, when commercial interests will protest that these old pasturelands, having outlived their usefulness as an exhibit of the state museum, are a shocking waste of real estate and taxes. The last barracks, the last guard post, all that barbed wire and broken brick, will be stripped off and scavenged. The spring woods and high picket fences will soften if not quite conceal the naked slabs of those indecent ruins and in time the weather will transform the ash pits into lily ponds, and broad fresh meadows will be suitable once more for butterflies, wildflowers, children’s voices, Sunday strolling, picnics, trysts, walked dogs, escaped balloons, and all manner of municipal occasions. Even its picturesque old name, Brzezinka, can only enhance the marketing potential of the grand development to follow. (p222-223)
After finishing this novel, I found it difficult to decide what to read next. Part of me craved the light and fluffy, another part despaired that nothing could match In Paradise for its courageous authenticity. As a writer, I felt both humbled and enthused. Yes, character and plot are important, but we should write about what matters, and write it well. But then, isn’t all fiction about the human condition? Peter Matthiessen has captured its complexity and contradictions better than most:
Do they mean love of God or love of life or love of the nameless martyrs, the lost millions? Or love right here in this moment for all these dishevelled fellow passengers? Love of all hapless humankind, saints, sadists, heroes, perverts, torturers, the lot – in effect, compassion for the human condition, the unconditional acceptance of every last two-legged crotched creature, so isolated and accursed among all beasts in knowing it must die? (p231)
Thank you Oneworld Publications for my review copy of In Paradise. Readers, apologies for another heavy subject so soon after The Right to Die Debate but there’s a much more cheery musical rendition of “Paradise” here on A Flash (or Two) of Musical Inspiration. I welcome your feedback on any aspect of this post.