Review: A parting masterclass in fiction spins the tale of a gathering of 100 ‘witness bearers’ at a week-long meditative retreat at Auschwitz
All of this craft combines to make much of In Paradise read like a masterclass in fiction. And the same naturalist’s eye that made his National Book Award memoir-cum-adventure story, The Snow Leopard, a cult classic among 1970s backpackers serves Matthiessen the novelist equally well: whether “the sharp-winded silhouette of a small falcon [that] crosses the no-man’s-land of charred black chimneys” or an ad-hoc portrait of Olin’s bigoted grandmother, “the old cobra” whose eyes “had opened so quickly” on her deathbed.
As if the bar were not set sufficiently high enough, the story also sees Olin envision, in a short, horrific scene, the gas-chamber deaths of his exiled father’s young lover and her younger sister – not unlike what the novelists Vasily Grossman and Dacia Maraini have assayed in their fiction. Unlike Manhattan born-and-bred Matthiessen, though, both of them were personally conversant with the actuality of internment and death camps – if nowhere as intimately as Primo Levi or Borowski.
Nor does Matthiessen shy away from having Olin both participate in and ponder the utterly unexpected, mystifying response by some of the retreatants to the Hebrew song Oseh Shalom in a key chapter entitled Dancing at Auschwitz.
Contention, however, not mystical affirmation, is more the order of the day among the assembled meditators, who when not squabbling often bitterly attack one another.
The various strands of allegiance, accusation and grievances are multiple, from the matter of those Poles who accepted work in Auschwitz to the abiding anger of Jewish retreat participants over the Vatican’s professed ignorance of the Nazi death camps – what the young Catholic novice nun Catherine, in a moving scene, prayerfully calls “the stunning indifference of those high prelates of the Church who knew the truth, yet out of prejudice and cowardice . . . failed to protest or attempt to intervene”.
“Monotheism by any name,” the Israeli historian Adina reminds them, “has been the rationale for war and genocide forever.”
But ethnicity, nationality and tribalism play their deadly part too, as the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf explores in his masterly Murderous Identities, and “identity”, along with “creed”, serves to sustain the millenniums-old notion of us and them that feeds what Olin describes as “so many old hates within this hall”.
Nor is language itself much help in trying to understand such horror. “Love” – like “Truth”, Olin reflects, a word “half-rotted in most mouths, his own included” – echoes Hemingway on the obscenity of such abstract terms when juxtaposed with the realities of war. What we eventually learn of Gyorgi Earwig’s life is devastating, and Olin, too, is left heart-shattered at the novel’s close.
But given its setting and subject, how could this stunning tale end otherwise?