Apr 23, 2014

In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen

I have never read Matthiessen before, though I know his work, both fiction and nonfiction, by reputation. He just passed away a week or so ago, so close to the publishing date of this book. It's not normally the kind of book I pick up, but I now know his reputation to be quite justified. He's known particularly for his nature and adventure writing, but wrote several novels as well. "In Paradise" is the story of Dr. Clements Olin, a Polish-born American professor who travels to Auschwitz in search of answers about his past, and loosely attaches himself to a spiritual retreat there, the first of its kind. I tend to stay away from WWII books, but I'm immensely glad I read this one. The people on the retreat are raw, angry, not the beatific presences one expects from the word "retreat." The different nationalities bite at each other, as all try to comprehend the unutterable evil of the Holocaust. Some of the participants are downright disgusting, but it forces the reader to question whether s/he would react any differently. What can one do, in the face of all that? Olin's struggle, that of one among the many, becomes representative of how we each must deal with that history on two levels: the universal and the personal. Even then, comprehension is elusive. This book impressed me deeply, and I will surely be picking up his earlier works to read.

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