As a pre-teen, I went through a phase where I read every novel I could about the Holocaust. Late at night I would hide under my blanket with a flashlight, pouring over the devastating details of ghettos and death camps, devouring stories about young girls like me facing an evil that seemed so impossible when compared to my modern, American, middle-class life. In eighth grade I remember visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, ignoring the signs that read “Do Not Touch,” and running my fingers along the inside of a boxcar—on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland—thinking that it was somehow important to touch the rough wood, that I was paying tribute to the people who had died there, and that, in some small way, my reverence mattered.
Clements Olin, the middle-aged central character of Peter Matthiessen’s new novel, In Paradise (Riverhead), would be a little horrified by my touch, and perhaps a little understanding, too. The novel follows Olin and 140 other participants from across the world on a week-long Zen retreat taking place in 1996 in the Auschwitz death camp, aimed at “homage, prayer, and silent meditation.” From their pasts to their guided tours and interwoven relationships, Olin and the others are grappling with their own complicated feelings toward the Holocaust—grief, of course, but also the overwhelming guilt and confusion that comes with trying to understand something so large and so evil. Right away Matthiessen proposes that it may not be possible: “In this empty place then, in winter, 1996, what was left to be illuminated? What could the ‘witness’ of warm, well-fed visitors possibly signify? How could such ‘witness’ matter and to whom? No one was listening.”
Matthiessen’s latest work—and last: the author passed away at age 86 days before the novel’s publication—is nothing like the novels I read as a girl. The Cage is one I remember most vividly, a true story about teenage Riva’s experience in the Lodz ghetto and later in Auschwitz and the labor camp Mittelsteine. The author, Ruth Minsky Sender, herself a Holocaust survivor, spares no detail in describing the horrors of the ghetto and of life in the camps. But there is an innocence and a strength to Riva that is never compromised, not even when she claims to have lost hope. Still, she presses on and never truly loses herself in her effort to survive.
As for In Paradise, no one is innocent and no one is spared in Matthiessen’s sharp and haunting prose. Like Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, Matthiessen does not sanctify the victims of the Holocaust any more than he indulges in lurid details of the atrocities. He recounts moments that are almost more horrifying in their sparse honesty—describing a scene from Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, he writes: “Reading Borowski was Olin’s first exposure to the swarming scene of terror on this platform, the howls of lost children running everywhere and nowhere ‘like wild dogs,’ the young mother so frantic to be spared that she forsakes the little boy calling Mama! Mama! Who runs behind her (‘Oh no, sir! He’s not mine!), casting away the last of her humanity for a few more hours of excruciating life.”
Despite brief moments of flashback and imagination, it is clear through the novel that Matthiessen’s intention is not to recount the horrors of the Holocaust, but to explore what it means when we try to revisit it, when we try to make sense of such a dark history. It’s almost impossible without falling into familiar clichés of psycho-babble and unconscious earnestness—something the members of the Zen retreat are very good at—and Matthiessen isn’t afraid to rip them to shreds, sometimes through Olin’s perspective and more often through the voice of Earwig, a group member who takes on the role of permanent outsider. None of the group can really articulate why they’re at the retreat, and it is unclear if they truly learn or understand anything new by the time they leave. What’s left is a bleakness that permeates both Olin and the reader. The act of “witnessing” forces us to face those dark truths of humanity that we would rather turn from.
The novel shifts toward the latter half, focusing more on a developing relationship between Olin and one of the nuns staying on the property. At first the romance feels jarring and almost too romantic against the backdrop of their austere setting. But that, too, is perhaps the final point of Matthiessen’s novel: we can try and bear witness to the past all we want, obsessing over lost details, touching the wall of a train car and wondering what other hands have pressed against that wood too, but, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Part of being human, both good and bad, is to press on.