Early in Peter Matthiessen’s final novel, In Paradise, the central character, Clements Olin comes to the conclusion that he
“…tends to agree with the many who have stated that fresh insight into the horror of the camps is inconceivable, and efforts at interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience an impertinence, out of the question.”
Yet this is the territory Matthiessen enters, in a novel that focuses more on how we come to terms with the Holocaust in its aftermath than on recreating it in fiction once again. Olin is a university professor who specialises in Slavic literature, particularly relating to the Third Reich, whose ostensible reason for visiting Auschwitz for a ‘spiritual retreat’ is as research for his study of Tadeusz Borowski, author of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Olin’s doubts are echoed more abrasively by ‘Earwig’, a caustic loudmouth who challenges all around him, a sort of conscience without manners:
“You got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain’t been written up yet in maybe ten thousand fucking books?”
Earwig is just one of a varied group of participants – a priest and two Catholic nuns among them – who have come to the retreat for different and often opaque reasons. Olin’s own reasons are more complicated than he at first admits. His grandfather was a Polish Baron from the very area he has now returned to (the first member of his family to do so) who left for America in 1939. Olin hopes to unravel the mystery of his own childhood ties to the nearby village while he is there. In part he wants to understand his father’s suicide, which is linked in his mind to that of Borowski.
The novel, then, is constructed of various strands. The retreat is described in some detail, with its participants voicing their stories and reactions, often interrupted by the crass yet necessary comments of Earwig, without which the novel would lack balance Olin’s own search is recounted as he grows closer to admitting the truth about his origins. Finally, there is a romance of sorts as Olin falls for one of the nuns, Catherine, and must decide how honest to be about his feelings as clearly any reciprocation would end her vocation. There is one moment of epiphany when many of the participants begin dancing during one of the ceremonies:
“Then transcendence fades and the singing dies, until all at once, hands are cast away in a rush of self-consciousness, and the dance subsides into itself like a circle left on the still surface of a pond by some large form only dimly seem as it withdraws below.”
Even this, though, is frowned upon by others.
Paradise is mentioned more than once in the novel. After their first visit to the camp, they are described leaving “like the first sinners fleeing paradise in a medieval painting…they cannot in this moment face the shame they see reflected in the eyes of other human beings.” Strangely, this apparently apt image seems to accidentally pair the camp with paradise – but this will reoccur. A flower garden for the Commandant’s wife is also described as paradise, and Olin later tells of an alternative version of the story of the Crucifixion where, when the thief asks Christ about being with him in paradise, he replies, ‘This is paradise.’ Matthiessen’s intention seems to be to prevent us from isolating the Holocaust as some version of hell, separate from other human experience, as indicated by the poem by Anna Akhmatova which prefaces the novel, including the lines:
“And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined dirty houses.”
In Paradise is not an easy novel – it seems jagged both in its construction and the effect it has on the mind, posing questions without answering them – but also without suggesting there are no answers. This applies not only to doubts about how we comprehend and react to the Holocaust, but to the novel’s characters. What, for example, are we to make of Olin’s feelings for Catherine? Is Earwig the voice of truth or cynicism? It is a difficult novel not in the sense we would normally use that word in literature – difficult to read, difficult to follow – but difficult in that it unsettles. And that is entirely the point.