“In Paradise” – Peter Matthiessen (Book Review)

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In Paradise,” the new novel by Peter Matthiessen, who passed away the weekend before it was released, begins with a poem by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. It includes this stanza:

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold.
Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?

This poem was written in 1921, about two decades before the Holocaust removed question as to why people around the world, especially those victimized, would despair. That despair has continued to this day, especially for those who lived through it or live today in the shadows of the places where the Holocaust took place. This novel tells the story of a diverse group of people gathering in 1996 at Auschwitz in an attempt to meet this despair head on.

The main character, a Polish-American professor named Clements Olin who is researching a survivor of the Holocaust that committed suicide after the war, explains: “One hundred and forty pilgrims from twelve countries have committed themselves to a week of homage, prayer, and silent meditation in memory of this camp’s million more victims…to bear witness lest the world forget man’s depthless capacity for evil if such horror is to be diminished in the future.”

The novel starts brilliantly as Olin arrives in Poland having missed the bus from town to the camp where the group awaits. A young couple he meets at a pub in town offer to drive him there. As they drive he asks them questions about Auschwitz and they struggle to answer, ignorant of some facts and horrified by others. The woman tells him, “We cannot even imagine it…we don’t know how to think about something so incredible…so far beyond belief, as if no sane intelligence could comprehend, far less accept, that such enormous horror could take place in this quiet neighborhood of [my] hometown.”

This couple’s inability to fully grasp what took place while living in the shadows of the camp become both a metaphor and a literal reality for the visitors to the camp. How can a person confronted so directly by such horrible evil make any sense of what is in front of them? For better or worse, “In Paradise” shies away from any real answers, but instead submerges itself in the messy relationships that form between the people at the camp and the painful internal reckoning of Olin as the immensity of the camp begins to find unexpected touch-points with his own life. At one point Olin thinks:

What could his research possibly contribute that has not, long since, with lacerating eloquence, been flayed upon the page? Ahron Appelfeld, ‘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. Even the greatest of answers seems petty.’

Neither the book, nor the characters, come by much relief or perspective on the events that transpired in the camp easily. The reader ends up mired in the murkiness of Olin’s mind as he argues with himself, and in the meeting rooms of the camp as the retreatants argue with each other, about what the Holocaust really says about us as people and what levels of guilt and/or solace are appropriate and deserved. The Jews in the group lash out at the Polish and German people in the group. A rabbi angrily condemns a pair of nuns praying by the cell of Maximilian Kolbe, reminding them of the role played by their predecessors in what happened there.

Olin says of the attendees: “What can they hope to offer besides prayer in belated atonement for the guilt of absence, of having failed to share in unimaginable suffering? Or hope to experience in this dead place beyond unearned gratification of shallow spiritual ambition? Their mission here, however well-intended, is little more than a wave of parting to a ghostly horror already withdrawing into myth.” The urge to assign guilt overwhelms everybody and relief remains elusive throughout.

The novel’s prose is regularly terse and beautiful. The descriptions of the camp (“Could there be seasons in this place or is it always winter? He could be breathing the air of the Dark Ages.”) create appropriate levels of despair, and Olin’s internal monologues are regularly convicting and challenging (“Could I have borne it? Could I have endured unceasing fear for even one day, far less a year, without succumbing to base acts of survival-at-any-cost for an extra crust or ladle of thin gruel?”). The second half of the novel becomes too concerned with a romantic subplot developing in the camp that, despite it’s symbolic purpose, feels mostly forced and a bit clumsy, but the novel ends as powerfully as it begins.

The question of human nature and how people made in the image of God could perpetrate such evil is likely the most difficult one in our universe for Christians to answer. One of the novel’s characters is an evolutionary biologist hoping “he might arrive at some insight on mass sadism that could cast light on the evolutionary purpose of so-called human evil.” The prevailing view of many in the novel–that people are little more than animals and we should no longer act surprised by such evil–is only half opposed to what the Bible tells us. We are fallen and broken, tainted by sin and expected to do wrong, but we are created by God for better things.

In a moment of despair Olin thinks, “Humankind has known forever what needed to be done to bring its own propensities under control, yet whole millennia of civilizations and religions and ever more complex scientific knowledge, all that striving with its high purpose and beautiful accomplishments has not sufficed to tame the inner beast even a little.” Many have argued over whether things are worse or better in modern times than they were in ancient, but what most can agree on is that things should be better. We know it, both logically and instinctively. Olin realizes later in the novel that “Humankind in all its greed and cruelties is the only creature capable of evil and the only one–surely these two are connected–aware that it must die.” He quotes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous observation: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

The title, “In Paradise,” is a reference to Christ’s words to the thief on the cross. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the Thief asked. Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Olin is quick to point out that in older texts (he is not able to say which), “Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, ‘No, friend, we are in Paradise right now.’” This suffering that we observe in the form of the Holocaust, and the lesser suffering we face on a daily basis, in this cynical professor’s mind, is all there is to reality. Thank God we know differently. In “The Reason for God,” Tim Keller reflects on the question of why God allows evil and suffering: “We look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition.”

As the people in this novel visit Auschwitz and try to answer the questions of “how?” and “why?”, it’s impossible for any of them, or for us, to answer those questions fully. But thanks to knowing what we know about our God and about his love for us, we can take courage and continue to wrestle with the harsh realities of our world, even while filtering them through the lens of the gospel–the gospel which tells us that the pain of this world is of a temporary nature, waiting to be overshadowed by the renewal of God’s future restoration. Matthiessen’s final novel is imperfect and incomplete in its attempt to address the Holocaust, and it also shows us that any human attempt to do so is. It is a difficult and challenging book that breaks your heart because, as Olin says, “The only whole heart is the broken heart, but it must be wholly broken”.