In Par­adise: A Novel

Peter Matthiessen

March 20, 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

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

  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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 © Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, Inc., 2014