After nearly 70 years, what is left to say about the Shoah that hasn’t already been said? Peter Matthiessen’s masterful novel, In Paradise, reveals that there are still many questions. In Paradise also shows its readers just how many of those questions remain unanswerable, even after seven decades.
In 1996, clerics, survivors, academics, and descendants of perpetrators gather in Oświęcim to make a week long pilgrimage to Auschwitz I and II. All have their own reasons for visiting. Some are there to remember; others to atone. Clements Olin doesn’t share his real reasons at first. On the first day at the Vernichtungslager, he tells those who ask that he’s there to do research. He tells himself that he’s there to try and understand the 1951 suicide of Shoah survivor Tadeusz Borowski, one of Olin’s favorite poets. Halfway through the novel, it becomes clear that Olin is really there to see if he can discover what happened to his mother.
Olin’s aristocratic family, the Olinskis, escaped Poland in the late 1930s. Their anti-Nazi politics might have made them targets. Clements himself was rescued later, after his birth; his parents weren’t married and his mother couldn’t leave with the Olinskis. The Olinskis ransomed him. They never spoke about Emi Allgeier and her possibly Jewish heritage. After Clements left Poland, she was rounded up and sent to the Krakow ghetto. After that, she was probably sent to Auschwitz.
Though the book is entirely set at Auschwitz and Oświęcim and the Shoah is the event that brought all the pilgrims together, the book is about the horrific and complicated aftermath everyone must find a way to deal with. The first third of In Paradise is full of questions, literal questions that fill paragraph after paragraph. Some of the questions are Clements’ own. Others are questions posed by German descendants or Polish witnesses. Many of the questions are asked (or snarled or shouted or spat) by Gyorgi Earwig. No one likes the man much, but no one can deny that he’s telling the truth when he challenges them about their purpose or their epiphanies.
Much of the book is deliberately depressing. You’re meant to feel the weight of history and guilty as much as these pilgrims are. But there is a wonderful moment of inappropriate catharsis near the end of the book. The pilgrims find themselves dancing with abandon when an American cantor sings Oseh Sholom. Some characters try to shame the dancers because Auschwitz is the last place anyone should dance and feel joy. And yet, the dancers can’t help but argue that it’s right and fitting to feel joy at being alive, even in a place that will represent death for centuries. Later, Clements (who danced) also finds that the other appropriate emotion to feel is a profoundly broken heart.
In Paradise will break your heart. It will leave you with impossible questions. It’s a book that you will have to challenge yourself to read. And it’s a challenge everyone needs to step up to at some point in their lives.