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.