STARRED REVIEW
April 2014

Self-examination in the shadow of the Holocaust

By Peter Matthiessen
Review by

Who risks the most when a literary lion well into his ninth decade writes a novel? The legend, who is putting his legacy on the line, or the longtime reader, who shoulders the load of vicarious shame in the event the book is a mess?

With In Paradise, readers can rest assured the risk is worthwhile.

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Who risks the most when a literary lion well into his ninth decade writes a novel? The legend, who is putting his legacy on the line, or the longtime reader, who shoulders the load of vicarious shame in the event the book is a mess?

With In Paradise, readers can rest assured the risk is worthwhile. In fact, it feels that Peter Matthiessen’s more than 60 years of professional writing has led to this, his most deft exploration into that crimped, fallible piece of meat called the human heart. In a dark, powerful and relevant novel, Matthiessen takes on Auschwitz and its legacy.

Polish-born Clements Olin is a middle-aged American poet. His family fled Poland as the Nazis were invading. In 1996, he returns, joining scores of other visitors at the notorious death camp. For a week, they will pray, meditate and bear witness to the atrocities that took place there. They will sleep in the barracks where the guards once slept. They will try, ultimately, to make sense of the unknowable horror that affected their own lives.

Clements is a self-proclaimed observer. He listens to the arguments about good and bad Germans, the complicity of the Polish citizenry, the guilt and responsibility Jews have in their own annihilation. He strikes up a dangerously close-to-improper friendship with a Catholic novitiate, a joyless young woman whose outspoken condemnation of her church’s passive role in the Holocaust gets her into trouble.

But Clements is a sham. A gradual reveal shows us he has more ties to the camp than first thought. He is even more of a searcher than the others. He is looking for his past, and for answers to questions he knows he should have asked long ago.
It may be in dubious taste to refer to an 86-year-old as among the last of a dying breed, but Matthiessen, a three-time National Book Award winner—twice for the same book, The Snow Leopard—self-confessed spy and co-founder of the prestigious Paris Review, has made a career of following his curiosity around the globe. A naturalist as much as a novelist, he’s explored the animal kingdom in places so remote the fauna outnumbered the people. That is especially pertinent now, when a whole generation of authors considers the L train from Brooklyn into Manhattan a schlep.

This powerful, necessary novel is hard to take, yet impossible to turn away from. It doesn’t shy away from questioning the depths of human depravity, nor is it ashamed to admit that there are no real answers.

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In Paradise

In Paradise

By Peter Matthiessen
Riverhead
ISBN 9781594633171

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