“In Paradise” is the last book of the multiple National Book award-winning author Peter Matthiessen. In baseball parlance, it is a walk-off. Mr. Matthiessen was a co-founder of the famed literary journal The Paris Review. He was a renowned naturalist and former CIA agent. The Paris Review was created to be his CIA cover.
In 1996 a cast of characters attend a week-long ecumenical retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenhau to pray and “bear witness”. As in good theatre, the ghosts of the dead bring out the skeletons in the closet. The plot centers around Professor Olin Clements, poet and historian, who as a child of a patrician Polish family came to the U.S. in the late 1930s. He attends the retreat facially for research purposes; secondarily to uncover the history of his mother whom his father left behind. The plot, though deftly handled, is the palette for various themes on the Human Condition, genocide, and religion. More Devil’s advocate than Socratic, it raises but does not try to answer these questions. The novel challenges perspectives and prejudices and is a great choice for a book club.
Like Hannah Arendt’s “Eichman in Jerusalem:A Report on the Banality of Evil” it takes no prisoners from the temporally coven of Israeli, German, Polish, Canadian, American, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, and Italian witnesses. It mocks those who “bear witness” that were not survivors, as it challenges the ethical fiber of those who found a means to survive. Earwig the most inflammatory of the author’s voices for piercing hypocrisy. There are no delusions about the role of class. An uneducated local Polish woman, who grew up seeing the smoke from the camp, like survivors of the camp inexplicably continues to return to it. Her viewpoint is not compassionate.
“I think… I am a natural oppressor. I know I am. I would be good at it.”… She declares that she has no sympathy for the people killed here except for those who fought back.”
Is Auschwitz for the educated. A shrine over which the Ashkenazi hold a monopoly while the mass graves outside of and within the more deadly Treblinka, represents the Eastern Europe and of Catholic Polish experience. Mattiessen’s characters do not give the Poles nor the Vatican a pass. It is not just Jews. At the retreat a gay priest is vilified and then attacked. Tadeusz Borowski’s suicide note, is in part a rebuttal against a “German” or “Polish” condition.
“.. 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 out of habit, and finally– for pleasure.”
Is Auschwitz a metaphorical “paradise?
“Footsteps on the bare wood floor resound too loudly. A stifled cry and many weep. Still, they do not look at one another. Like the first sinners fleeing Paradise in a medieval painting, hands clasped to their errant genitals, they cannot in this moment face the shame they see reflected in the eyes of other human beings.”
How innately evil are humans.
“Anders says he has always been embarrassed by Jews who insist that their suffering was more terrible than other people’s. Sitting motionless on their platform all day long in winter weather, it has seemed to him more and more idle to judge whose ordeal has been worst. Or whose guilt, for that matter. Germans, Poles, Romanians, Croats, Ukrainians– are these ethnicities intrinsically more cruel, historically ‘worse’ human being than the racists and torturers in other lands? If so, does ‘worse’ signify simply signify ‘inferior’? And if so, do these peoples remain inferior in perpetuity? Or should all Homo sapiens be given the benefit of the doubt by reason of incurable insanity? Accept that we can’t help ourselves, were ‘only human’.”
The author describes the Auschwitz home life of Rudolf Hoess, one of the Kapos at the camp.
“The Hoesses and their four offspring, waited on by emaciated slaves, inhabited a brute heaven of gourmet delicacies, silks, furs, jewelry, and assorted loot stripped from doomed prisoners. His wife would sigh, ‘I want to live here till I die”, according to one slave…”
The much older Professor Clements is infatuated with noviate Catherine who is with other nuns and priests on the retreat. She is bound to the Church but uncomfortable with the orthodoxy. He mentions to her the apocryphal parable of her namesake, St. Catherina of Siena, a Dominican of the fourteenth century.
“Christ crucified is importuned by a penitent thief, in agony on his own cross on that barren hillside. ‘I beseech you, Jesus, take me with you this day to Paradise!’. In traditional gospels, Jesus responds, ‘Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,’ but in older texts-Eastern Orthodox or the Apocrypha, perhaps?- Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, ‘No friend, we are in Paradise, right now.'”
Before leaving Poland Dr. Clements goes to a Franciscan church to see a modern stained glass window that a survivor recommended to him. The survivor is an artist who is representing the suffering of those in the camps in a cave in the vicinity. How should art represent the evil of genocide for it to be impactful?
“The only way to understand such evil is to reimagine it. And the only way to reimagine it is through art, as Goya knew. You cannot portray it realistically.”
Yet the stained glass window at the Franciscan church is not abstract.
“Lifting his gaze, he eventually locates Malan’s stained glass window. A thunderous Jehovah brow, a torrent of white beard, cascading downward from on high; the white is soon lost among the livid greens and blues of sun-filled Evil emerging out of chaos. And there it sits, crouched in the swirl of colors–a gray claw with long stiletto nails and carmine veins like lethal wires under the rotting skin, the dead had of an aghast Almighty withdrawn from His Creation.”
This is a masterful work of literature that I highly recommend that you read.