Paradise? This is a complicated question, even for a writer as accomplished as Peter Matthiessen. He wrote two of my favorite novels: two of the novels I have most enjoyed during a lifetime of reading and teaching literature. The first, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), is set mostly in South America and is one of the most profound novels ever written about disparate cultures clashing with catastrophic consequences for both of them. A much later movie version was appallingly awful. The second, Killing Mr. Watson (1990), is the first of a three-volume trilogy, later collapsed into a lengthy narrative called Shadow Country (2008), and described by the publisher as a great “American epic about the Everglades sugar planter and notorious outlaw E. J. Watson on the wild Florida frontier at the turn of the twentieth century.” Utterly brilliant, these novels and others and his celebrated non-fiction (such as The Snow Leopard and The Cloud Forest) ought to have won him the Nobel Prize. It’s hard to get better books than the ones written by Peter Matthiessen.
But there’s a problem with literary awards and writers who do not keep writing the same story over again and again, and that takes us to In Paradise, Matthiessen’s latest, published just shy of his eighty-seventh birthday and two or three days after his death. It’s totally different than all of the others and even substantially different than other Holocaust novels, but that is no surprise. There are readers who probably ask themselves, how can anything new be said about that subject. Well, I assure you it can; all it takes is a writer of remarkable talent.
The setting of Matthiessen’s novel is the death camps, Auschwitz/Birkenau, in Germany, mostly at the crematoriums. The time is 1996, and the main character, an American named Clements Olin, has chosen to visit the site as part of his work as a poet/ academic. He’s Polish born and still remembers some of the language, so he flies to Cracow and plans to go overland, into Germany, to visit the Holocaust sites. But he misses the bus and decides to let two young Poles (Mirek and Wanda) drive him the thirty miles to get there. They’re a chatty couple and during the brief ride, Matthiessen offers clues about what will be a major theme of the novel. When Olin tells the youngsters that during the war Jews were murdered in the area, one of them responds, “We were never learned such things!” The Holocaust is slowly being forgotten; once the generation of survivors has died out, it will vanish from historical memory.
That appears to be the evidence of the story that follows. When he gets to Auschwitz, Olin encounters a large group of people (more than a hundred), who have all arrived in order to offer prayers as a form of healing and resolution, i.e., a quasi-form of closure in the understanding of how the Holocaust happened. They’re a disparate group of people: a Buddhist Monk, Catholic priests and nuns, Jews from Europe and America, Germans—all attempting to understand what happened. Collectively, they are referred to as ‘pilgrims,” though one of them asks how visiting Auschwitz can possibly lead to an understanding of the event. Olin himself muses, “Surely the time, means, and goodwill of these would-be ‘witness bearers’ might be better spent out in the world, helping the hordes of refugees and other sufferers for whom some sort of existence might yet be salvaged. The point of life is to help others through it…. We must help the living when we can, since the dead have no more need of us.”
Among the pilgrims, there’s a nay-sayer, named G. Earwig, who taunts Olin and others throughout the several days they will spend at the death camps, praying and eating subsistence rations (like those about to be cremated), enduring sub-standard housing to replicate their terrible experiences. After clearing his throat and spitting, Earwig provokes Olin, once he learns that he’s a professor, “The Polack Holocaust authority, right? Come here to write about it? …you got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain’t been written up yet in maybe ten thousand fucking books?” Tensions will be frayed; priests and nuns will begin to feel the futility of their calling; disturbing pasts will be revealed for several of the characters, connecting them to the genocide at the locale. Even Olin realizes the consequences of his lifetime of inaction. It’s not a pretty picture, particularly for the religious figures who begin to question their calling, but virtually all of them begin to see their own lives differently. In that sense, healing does take place.
And the title of this eloquently written and thought-provoking novel—In Paradise—what does it mean? It certainly can’t be here at the death camps, or can it?
“Christ crucified is importuned by a penitent thief, in agony on his own cross on that barren hillside. ‘I beseech thee, Jesus, take me with you to Paradise!’ In traditional gospels, Jesus responds, ‘Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,’ but in an older text—Eastern Orthodox or the Apocrypha, perhaps?—Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, ‘You are in Paradise right now.’”
In Paradise demonstrates that Peter Matthiessen remained a vital part of America’s contemporary literary scene, an unflinching original who continued to write provocative narratives.
Peter Matthiessen: In Paradise
Riverhead, 256 pp., $27.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com.