Elemental dancing in a death camp
In Paradise By Peter Matthiessen Scribe, 256pp, $27.99
THERE is a moment in Viktor Frankl’s classic Holocaust memoir when in a “violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death” he feels his spirit pierce “the enveloping gloom”. Standing in a trench of frozen soil, he spies a light in a distant farmhouse, a kind of answering sign. Man’s Search for Meaning, the book Frankl wrote after three years in concentration camps, was about this ability to overcome, however briefly, the horror of camp life and hold fast to “life’s potential meaning”.
Sixty years on, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a museum. It hosts busloads of tourists, memorial events and — improbably — residential ecumenical meditation retreats. For some, Auschwitz is the only grave their descendants were granted. What kind of transcendence can such a place offer? This question lies at the heart of In Paradise, the final novel from American writer Peter Matthiessen, who died in April aged 86.
Matthiessen, an award-winning author of more than 30 works, was a naturalist, co-founder of The Paris Review and one-time CIA agent. He was also a Zen Buddhist and In Paradise is based on his experiences at an annual Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz. At first, he imagined writing literary nonfiction, a form he’d mastered in some of his best-known works. ( The Snow Leopard, about his search for the rare leopard in the Himalayas, is the most popular of these and won the US National Book Award).
But Matthiessen quickly realised this new material required more than facts. “I didn’t think it was authentic,” he said of using nonfiction. “I didn’t think I was contributing anything fresh.” He recalled his conversations with a survivor, an artist who had worked throughout the retreat on a huge mural. The painter told the author, “the only way to understand an evil is through art. You can’t describe it with realism.” Matthiessen then turned to fiction.
Despite this rejection of realism, In Paradise is still a firmly realist novel, with a high-minded protagonist, an unlikely romance and a mystery at its heart. Clements Olin, a 55-year old American scholar, arrives in Krakow, ostensibly to continue research on Tadeusz Borowski, author of the renowned short story collection This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. But we soon discover his personal connection to Oswiecim, the nearby town where he was born out of wedlock to a woman he has never met.
Olin is a judgmental and often sardonic observer, impatient with his fellow meditators’ ignorance or sentiment, and even more intolerant of his own. He resolves to suppress “a wince at sentimental rubbish about ‘closure’ and ‘healing’ and ‘confronting the Nazi within’ ”. This makes him and the 140 other combative retreaters either ill-equipped or ideal candidates for the detachment required in Buddhist practice.
During the week of “homage, prayer, and silent meditation” to remember the million murdered at the camp, Olin joins debates on the guilt or innocence of various nations and the point of “bearing witness” as a means to reconcile a traumatic past. Among the attendants are descendants of Nazis, a Palestinian, a Rabbi, a Polish-American grouch called George Earwig and Catholic clergymen, many burdened with their ancestors’, nation’s or religion’s complicity with the Holocaust perpetrators.
One evening, worn down after uncomfortable nights in the former SS dormitory and pal- try meals designed to evoke prison fare, the participants stop bickering, and dance. Olin, despite himself, is “delighted” to be involved — partly because he gets to hold hands with a young Catholic novice, Catherine. Olin’s growing desire and increasing speculations about her feelings sit uneasily in a narrative that sets out to explore events of a more epic scale. Perhaps Matthiessen intended to show how human desire persists, regardless of the context. Yet small-scale personal intrigues always risk seeming trivial against a backdrop of genocide and war. If Olin’s search for his mother, whose fate was tied to the Holocaust, was given greater weight than this romance, the narrative would perhaps have been more powerful.
The Dancing, as the retreaters refer to it, becomes a central conundrum. Is it a moment, like Frankl’s “spirit piercing”, in a place seemingly incompatible with joy? Or a “profaning of the martyrs”? Olin (sounding like the naturalist Matthiessen here) decides the urge to dance is a symptom of “earth apprehension”, an elemental shifting of forces in the atmosphere.
Olin himself observes that scholarly debates around Holocaust history have “long since, with lacerating eloquence, been flayed upon the page”. Yet the novel reprises many of these now familiar arguments in Olin’s elevated, formal diction. Here he is on the Dancing: With the advent of this something-notknown … the metastasising animosities among the witness bearers are dissolving, as if the Dancing were sealing their acceptance of all woebegone humankind in all its greed and cruelties as the only creature capable of evil and the only one — surely these two are connected — aware that it must die.
Buried in this passage is perhaps a more personal meditation. As he wrote, Matthiessen was battling leukemia. He died shortly before In Paradise was published. Undoubtedly the questions he explores throughout this novel — of endurance and suffering, and of transcendence — also had a more personal significance.
A death camp is an unlikely setting for enlightenment. But the finest passages of Matthiessen’s novel evoke the natural world, and this talent for observing the elemental provides respite. There is “low swampy ground crisscrossed by crows”; “a shifting sky withholding snow” and, at one of the crematoria, the “heartshaped prints of a small deer”.