Review: A parting masterclass in fiction spins the tale of a gathering of 100 ‘witness bearers’ at a week-long meditative retreat at Auschwitz
Peter Matthiessen: the award-winning novelist, naturalist, 1950s CIA operative and ordained Zen monk died just three days before ‘In Paradise’ was published. Photograph: Gordon M Grant/New York Times
Biography, as a subset of truth, can itself be as strange and rich as fiction. Take the recently deceased American writer Peter Matthiessen: award-winning novelist, naturalist, commercial fisherman, author of more than 30 books, cofounder of the Paris Review, 1950s CIA operative and 1960s anti-Vietnam War tax resister.
An ordained Zen monk, he was unsuccessfully sued for libel by the governor of South Dakota and an FBI agent in 1986 over his nonfiction book on the imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier. You’d be hard pressed to make it up.
In Paradise, his final novel, was published just three days after Matthiessen died, last month, aged 86. Underpinned by an ambitious, near audacious, storyline, it tells of a gathering of 100 multinational “witness bearers”, from camp survivors to Polish descendants of SS perpetrators, who, after convening in 1996 for a week-long meditative retreat at the Auschwitz death camps, struggle hugely to find their way through such an outsized undertaking.
Acknowledging that “efforts at interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience” of the camps is almost certainly “an impertinence”, Matthiessen proceeds to set out his fictional stall in deftly assured fashion.
Among his sizeable cast we meet the genial, savvy Californian retreat leader Ben Lama, Swedish biologist Anders, Israeli historian Adina and two wonderfully imagined young Franciscan nuns – the elder of whom, Catherine, will undertake a moving pas des deux of sorts with the novel’s protagonist, Clements Olin, a 55-year-old divorced and childless Polish-American poet and academic.
We also get a rich account of Olin’s upbringing, the only son of a Protestant cavalry lieutenant who fled the Polish town of Oswiecim for the US with Olin’s patrician grandparents, in 1936, and of Olin’s subsequent solitary, sceptical and melancholy life.
At the same time, embracing EM Forster’s stricture that “mystery is essential to a plot”, Matthiessen takes his time in revealing the personal quest that underlies Olin’s stated purpose of visiting Auschwitz in order to research a monograph he is writing on the Polish writer and camp survivor Tadeusz Borowski.
Matthiessen is also similarly measured in revealing the backstory of Gyorgi Earwig, a clearly tortured soul of unknown European origins, who, by angrily belittling at every opportunity the proposed ecumenical “healing of the faiths”, functions as the novel’s antagonist.
That said, as with any tale that endeavours to plumb such cataclysm, history and humanity themselves end up carrying out that adversarial role.
Matthiessen combines tactical restraint with lucid, compelling yet almost conversational prose. He has an ability to render a character in a detail or two: “a small, waistless woman”; someone else “big-voiced, with large, squarish front teeth”; and yet another with “white hair. . . like a worn out feather duster”.