In the years before his death this April at the age of 86, Sagaponack author and naturalist Peter Matthiessen had had an unusual pastime for nearly two decades: attending group Buddhist meditation sessions on the selection platform at Auschwitz, where prisoners were taken from trains and their fates — to die immediately or be worked to death — were decided by Nazi doctors.
It seems a strange pursuit for someone with no personal ties to what happened at Auschwitz, but perhaps it is not so strange for a man who devoted many years of study to Buddhist philosophy. If one can see beyond the human suffering at Auschwitz, one can see beyond the human suffering anywhere.
Mr. Matthiessen’s final novel, “In Paradise,” is a fictionalized account of one such meditation session, told from the perspective of a college professor named Clements Olin, who is working on a book about the author Tadeusz Borowski, who survived life at Auschwitz only to commit suicide at the age of 28.
Olin guises his visit as an academic pursuit of Borowski’s life in Auschwitz, but, like most of the attendees at this guided meditation session, he has personal reasons for being there. After all, few people who feel the need to sit in silence with the ghosts of Auschwitz do not have some personal attachment to what happened there.
Mr. Mattthiessen understands that, but his protagonist can’t entirely bring himself to acknowledge the personal history behind his presence at the retreat. Olin isn’t actually a participant in the meditation sessions — he’s just come along on the trip to research his book, and he’s initially cynical about his co-travelers’ reasons for attending.
“Their mission here, however well-intended, is little more than a wave of parting to a ghostly horror already withdrawing into myth,” he writes.
That struggle is the struggle of this book, which, while taking pains to avoid the well-trod ground of Holocaust stories, admits that those stories traverse that same ground because they must: unthinkable things happened here. They happened with such routine frequency that every day’s cruelty must have blurred into the next. But the true depths of human capacity for cruelty must be remembered.
It can’t help but be heavy stuff. We can’t help but be weary from the remembrance. To construct a new narrative in the face of these truths is sheer folly. But Peter Matthiessen was not a man to stray from difficult assignments, and so, he tried.
Olin’s family hails from the Polish town of Oswiecim, on whose outskirts the Germans constructed the series of camps that became known as Auschwitz, the German pronunciation of the name of the town.
In Oswiecim today, he finds, there is Klezmer music in the pubs, played by musicians who have never met any Jews. A young Polish couple agree to drive him to Auschwicz, and the woman brags to have been raised in a “Jew house” but has never met a living Jew. These are his people, but they are not his people. It’s a complicated moral conundrum, one wrestled with by all of Europe several generations ago, but fading quickly in our collective consciousness as more and more people who had directly experienced the Holocaust die of old age.
The irony in the Poles’ disregard for what happened to the Jews, Matthiessen points out, is that Hitler liked Polish jokes as much as he despised Jews, and the Nazis’ plan for Poland, he writes, was “to diminish the average intelligence of a whole people on the cold theory that the decadent west would never come to the defense of hordes of leaderless illiterates in a vast backward hinterland too amorphous and uncivilized to be taken seriously as an independent nation.”
When Olin asks an artist who lives near the camp why he chose to move to such a horrible place, the answer was simple: “because it’s cheap. Good mortgages out here too.”
On the meditation trip is a jerk named with the unlikely name of G. Earwig, a pugnacious Jew with the attitude of a British cabbie, who can’t help unleashing torrents of sarcasm at everyone he’s traveling with.
Ben Lama, the Roshi guiding them,“a genial, bearded, near bald psychologist left over from the flower power days of a psychedelic California youth,” lets Earwig spew ad nauseam. His rationale: Earwig makes people uncomfortable in a place where they should be uncomfortable. His remarks “cut away the devotional hushed speech and pseudo-spiritual manner that afflict too many participants, getting in the way of true empathy and clarity.”
Clements’ personal reason for being there is stifled and uncertain, with a plotline that’s as difficult to execute without cliché as the story of white Americans claiming they had a Native American grandmother.
Clements’ given name was David, and he was taken to America by his father’s family when he was a young boy. His mother was a woman named Emmeline Allgeier, who was last seen in Oswiecim during the war. He believes she was killed in the camp, but in the chaos of the war, he never knew for sure. He has one photograph, of her leaning out a window, smiling, with a carefree wave for the person taking the photograph, but it only brings him bad news when he shows it to people who live in Oswiecim: she was taken away.
Olin’s memory of Emmeline, or Emi, is shrouded, as if in a dream, and Mr. Matthiessen, usually a master of story, can’t seem to muster clarity for her story or for her son’s inability to remember his mum. He is struck by visions at the gas chambers, like those of a man suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of SS soldiers who “seed the pandemonium below with white cyanide pellets dumped from black-and-orange canisters, this perhaps in those very moments when her baby was being dandled in the new world.”
Why did he come? Did he “wish to learn that laughing Emi in the window was gone and lost forever in the wastes of history, along with every soul who ever knew her voice or took delight in her or might have mourned her?”
“That you David?” he asks himself. “Welcome to bloody Poland, man. This was your decision, you whose heart fastened on that instinct that something awaited you in the “dead, detested country of old Vorarbeiter. Well, now you know, right?”
He is sick on the edge of the precipice of a story, and he will never find all the pieces of this narrative. That, too, is the story of the Holocaust.
Mr. Matthiessen sends Olin to fantasize about having a relationship a young, doctrine-challenging young nun who is meditating with the group. It’s jolting. It’s disturbing. It seems like an unnecessary plot line. And perhaps that’s the point. The flesh is weak.
The meditation session later descends into a ridiculous dancing circle, as the meditators, as if in a trance, one day begin singing the Hebrew song “Oseh Shalom,” about making peace by making something whole, dancing in a circle on the selection platform until many realize just how sacrilegious their actions must seem.
Olin’s theory: you’re only whole when you’re wholly broken.
“In this war morality…the ideals of freedom, justice and human dignity, had all slid off man like a rotten rag,” wrote Borowski. “We said there is no crime that a man will not commit in order to save himself, and having saved himself, he will commit crimes for increasingly trivial reasons….first out of duty, then from habit, and finally, for pleasure.”
Meditation over, Olin retreats to the Catholic church in the center of Oswiecim, pondering the ornate stained glass images in the church, erupting from the tainted soil of the town branded by the death camps, with “Eden emerging out of chaos, a gray claw with long stiletto nails and carmine veins like lethal wires under the rotting skin, the dead hand of an aghast almighty withdrawn from his creation.”
Despite the sometimes awkward narrative, it’s fitting that, in his final years, this naturalist turned his observant eye to the humans around him, and to their capacity for cruelty. It makes for an uncomfortable read. But that’s the point.