In Paradise: A Novel

Riverhead  2014


Early on in Peter Matthiessen's In Paradise, a novel that takes place mostly in Auschwitz, the central character, D. Clements Olin, asks himself what he can "hope to understand" from his visit. He ponders Aharon Appelfeld's words: "The Holocaust belongs to the type of enormous experience that reduces one to silence. Any utterance, any statement, any 'answer' is tiny, meaningless, and occasionally ridiculous."

What are we to make, then, of Olin, a poet and scholar born in Poland, living in the United States, and now visiting Auschwitz with a meditation group, though he insists on his status as "researcher" (of Holocaust literature) over and above anything else? And what are we to make of Matthiessen's work more generally, a novel that belongs to the ever-growing genre of post-Holocaust literature, or works of fiction that are inspired by or that somehow relate back to the Holocaust? What are the ethics of fictionalizing an event so real as to render it incredible, literally beyond comprehension?

Matthiessen's complicated book is, above all else, a meditation on the very question of what it means to try to talk about that "enormous experience." The book deftly and ruthlessly pursues the battles that we face, both individually and also in dialogue with others, when we try to engage with horrors that can never be named or shaped into a coherent or reliable narrative. If we continue to ask questions, however ridiculous those questions, perhaps we can prevent this past from transforming into "stale history." In other words, although we may have no right to speak of such things, we also have no right not to speak of such things.

It is never enough to approach a delicate subject with just good intentions. Matthiessen presses further, presenting us with unappealing characters willing every once in a while to grapple with evil even as they are more often and realistically distracted by fear, guilt, shame, and ignorance. Olin, like other members of the meditation group, has a complicated personal history that unfolds as he wanders in the cold and bitter ruins of Auschwitz and the surrounding town. Other members of the meditation group include Jews and non-Jews from twelve countries, and sometimes descriptions of their interactions devolve into a motley of caricatures. This is possibly meant to remind us that we are dealing here with reactions, not realities. The Holocaust is over, but it will never be over. And we may, as Olin pronounces toward the end of the book, be "sick to death of words," but words are all that remain.

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Riverhead Books

  1. Soon after arriving at Auschwitz, Olin wonders if it’s even possible to “bear witness” to the Holocaust, especially given the number of years that have passed and how few survivors remain. “Their mission here, however well-intended, is little more than a wave of parting to a ghostly horror withdrawing into myth,” he says. What do you think? Is it still possible to bear witness to the Holocaust? If yes, what does that witness look like to you? If not, why not?

  2. Peter Matthiessen was a lifelong naturalist who wrote prolifically about the “wild places” of the world; about far-flung landscapes and people who “lived on the edge of life.” Do you see elements of the natural or the wild in In Paradise? Where?

  3. A distinct thread of dark humor wends its way through In Paradise, emerging in Earwig’s provocations, Olin’s musings, and the interactions of the disparate groups on the retreat. What purpose can humor serve in a work like this?

  4. Olin, when reflecting on the seminal Holocaust works of Levi and Borowski, muses that even the victims weren’t truly innocent in the death camps – that everyone was complicit, except for the children. He echoes Viktor Frankl’s infamous line, “We who have come back, we know. The best of us did not return.” As members of the same race, Olin insists, we all share culpability. What do you think?

  5. The epigraph that opens In Paradise is quoted again during the scene of “the dancing.” How do you interpret Akhmatova’s poem? What is that “something not known...but wild in our breast for centuries”? How does it relate to the dance? To In Paradise as a whole?

  6. On the surface, Olin and Earwig seem to be diametrically opposed. Do you see any parallels between the characters, in what they are searching for or how they make sense of their personal histories? What does In Paradise have to say about questions of home and longing and identity?

  7. What do you think Ben Lama means when he says, “In this place, we are all struggling with our dark angels?”

  8. Olin, after reading Sister Catherine’s diary, recites the parable from the Gospel of Luke about Jesus and the penitent thief crucified alongside him, in which the thief begs to be taken to Paradise, and Jesus responds, “No, friend, we are in Paradise right now.” Why do you think Matthiessen drew his title from this story?

  9. A longtime student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen participated in three witness-bearing retreats at Auschwitz in the later years of his life and had long wanted to write about what he experienced there. But as “a non-Jewish American journalist” he felt he had “no right to do so” as nonfiction. Who do you feel has agency when it comes to telling the stories of genocide? Does this differ from the telling of other truths? Should it?

  10. One of the major themes of In Paradise is love – sacred love, but also the erotic, and, as with Olin’s feelings for Sister Catherine, the connection between the two. How did you perceive their relationship? Why?

JBC Discussion Questions

  1. In the book, Matthiessen writes, “Olin tends to agree with the many who have stated that fresh insight into the horror of the camps is inconceivable, and efforts at interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience an impertinence, out of the question.” This echoes Matthiessen's own concerns as a writer broaching the topic. Do you agree with the statement? Did you encounter this feeling at all while reading the book? Do you feel that Mattiessen overcame this concern in writing this book?

  2. Similarly, in the press release for In Paradise, Matthiessen noted that he didn't feel qualified “as a non-Jewish American journalist,” to write on Auschwitz and that “Only fiction would allow [him] to probe from a variety of viewpoints the great strangeness of what [he] had felt.” Do you feel that fiction was the more appropriate medium for this story? Would you have felt differently about this story as a non-fiction book?

  3. The lead character in the novel, Olin, stays a bit removed from the story--he's not a participant in the retreat or its activities, but more of an observer. Does this aspect of the character provide more or less insight for you as a reader? Does it show the bigger picture or limit your engagement? Olin becomes increasingly involved in the group as the novel progresses; did that change your experience of reading?

  4. Was there a character whose response to being at the concentration camp spoke to you the most? Was there anyone who found closure or peace in any way?

  5. The scene in the book when members of the group begin to sing and dance drew criticism from some of the characters who felt that kind of behavior to be disrespectful. What do you think?

  6. The intention of the retreat is to "bear witness". What do you think that means for the retreat participants? What does it mean in 1996, more than forty years after the war ended?

  7. Olin slowly discovers his family's secret. Does this discovery do anything to change his character, his position around the retreat, or his ultimate goals?

JBC Book Clubs questions (c) Jewish Book Council, Inc., 2014

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