Peter Matthiessen has made a career of writing about evil.
A prodigious researcher and a refined stylist, Matthiessen can write with ecstatic beauty, especially about the natural world. But in his more than 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, he has repeatedly addressed such themes as environmental destruction, genocide and racism with an unflinching eye. In his new novel, In Paradise, he takes what may be his deepest look yet into the abyss.
At age 86, after six decades as a writer, Matthiessen could take a cue from his contemporary Philip Roth and rest upon his laurels. Matthiessen is the only author ever to win National Book Awards both for nonfiction, for The Snow Leopard (1978), and for fiction, for Shadow Country (2008). The latter book, set in Southwest Florida a century ago, is for my money the greatest work of historical fiction about Florida and an essential American novel.
But Matthiessen isn't done yet. In Paradise takes readers to a very different historical setting: Auschwitz. At that complex of concentration camps on Nazi-held Polish territory between 1941 and 1945, more than 1.1 million prisoners, 90 percent of them Jewish, died, either in the gas chambers or from the brutal conditions.
In Paradise is not set during those years but in 1996, when the camps have become a museum and monument to the victims. The novel's main character, a middle-aged, Polish-born American academic named Clements Olin, comes there for a spiritual retreat attended by several hundred people. They are Jews, Christians, Buddhists and nonbelievers, from an international roster of countries, led by a team of clergy from various faiths in a weeklong retreat centered on group meditation.
Reserved and skeptical, raised a Protestant but not particularly religious, Olin doesn't identify with the seekers and survivors who make up the group. A professor of Slavic literature specializing in the Third Reich and the Shoah, he is there to do research for a scholarly monograph on the Polish poet Tadeusz Borowski, an Auschwitz survivor who shot to fame after the war — and then committed suicide at age 28.
Matthessien begins Olin's journey with his ill-timed arrival in Krakow, where he is befriended by a young Polish couple. He is startled to learn that the two have no idea that, before the war, their city had a substantial Jewish population — "in all their lives they have never met a single Jew, not one!"
They drive him to Oswiecim, the small town where, he tells them, he was born, although he has no memory of it — he was brought to the United States as a baby and raised by his father and paternal grandparents, none of whom wanted to discuss their lives in Poland, even though his grandfather was among the local aristocracy. Perhaps Olin's quest is not entirely scholarly.
Once he has reached Auschwitz and joined the retreat, Olin doesn't have to deal with any more blissful historical ignorance, but he is startled in a different way by the wide range of reactions to and opinions about the Holocaust his fellows reveal. He is most intrigued by two of them: Sister Catherine, a young Roman Catholic novice nun who is both a passionate believer and a critic of her church, and Gyorgi Earwig, a bitter and mysterious figure who loudly mocks the earnest witness given in evening meetings.
At first, although deploring his rudeness, Olin is secretly on Earwig's side: "Excepting the few elderly survivors among them, what meaningful witness can any of them bear so many years after the fact? . . . Their mission here, however well-intended, is little more than a wave of parting to a ghostly horror already withdrawing into myth."
But Olin is soon startled yet again, this time by his own intense reactions to Auschwitz. Much more than the group meditations or the evening meetings, he is affected by wandering alone around the camp, to the train platform where SS guards chose who would die immediately and who would go to work in the camps; to the bleak barracks; to the gas chamber and crematorium where he is baffled to see "a wire mesh enclosing seed and suet . . . Who is it, Olin wonders, who sets out winter food for little birds in such a place?"
As the footsteps of the dead seem to whisper around him, Olin turns within himself and to others for answers to what he is experiencing. As more and more of his past is revealed — as well as the histories of other key characters — the retreat becomes a life-changing experience in wholly unexpected ways.
Early on, Earwig challenges Olin, crudely but with laser precision: "You got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain't been written up yet in maybe ten thousand f------ books?"
Whether Olin has such insight is a question, but there is no doubt that with In Paradise Matthiessen brings something profoundly and fiercely fresh to the subject.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.