The peripatetic Matthiessen (Shadow Country, 2008, etc.) ponders Auschwitz decades after the Holocaust, in a novel that’s philosophical, mordant and surprisingly romantic.
Clements Olin is a 55-year-old professor of Slavic literature with a specialty in works by Holocaust survivors. That interest has been an abstraction for him for much of his career, but as he visits the Nazi camp for a two-week spiritual retreat in 1996, his understanding becomes more emotionally concrete. Clements is one of 140 pilgrims there, and the agenda includes a mix of tourism, meditation, and evening dinner discussions that inevitably turn into heated arguments about God, anti-Semitism, patriotism and man’s capacity for evil. Chief among the instigators is Earwig, who rains contempt upon the visitors, whom he considers “soft and runny as one-minute eggs.” Clements is tolerant of the man’s profane reprimands—he’s the necessary point of entry for Matthiessen’s musings, after all—but the professor has other things on his mind. First of these is learning what happened to his mother, who lived near the camps and may have been sent there; second is Sister Catherine, a young nun whose spiritual unsteadiness serves as a magnet for Clements’ own spiritual and romantic anxieties. Matthiessen handles these threads gracefully and without a studious reverence for his novel’s difficult subject; Earwig is the book’s comic relief as well as its angry id. Even so, In Paradise as a whole feels overly formal; the framing device of the retreat makes the philosophizing feel potted (today, the perils of patriotism, tomorrow, the complicity of the Catholic Church, and so on) and Clements’ emotional longings, constricted. A burst of spontaneous dancing on the retreat gives the book a similarly surprising lift, but it’s quickly back to hand-wringing and self-loathing.
An admirable, if muted, minor-key study of the meaning of survivorship.