Review: A parting masterclass in fiction spins the tale of a gathering of 100 ‘witness bearers’ at a week-long meditative retreat at Auschwitz
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”.
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?