El­e­men­tal dancing in a death camp

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mireille Juchau

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”.

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