In the winter of 1996, more than a hundred women and men of diverse nationality, background, and belief gather at the site of a former concentration camp for an unprecedented purpose: a weeklong retreat during which they will offer prayer and witness at the crematoria and meditate in all weathers on the selection platform, while eating and sleeping in the quarters of the Nazi officers who, half a century before, sent more than a million Jews to their deaths. Clements Olin, an American academic of Polish descent, has come along, ostensibly to complete research on the death of a survivor, even as he questions what a non-Jew can contribute to the understanding of so monstrous a catastrophe. As the days pass, tensions, both political and personal, surface among the participants, stripping away any easy pretense to healing or closure. Finding himself in the grip of emotions and impulses of bewildering intensity, Olin is forced to abandon his observer’s role and to embrace a history his family has long suppressed—and with it the yearnings and contradictions of being fully alive.
ABOUT PETER MATTHIESSEN
Peter Matthiessen was a three-time National Book Award winner (twice in two nonfiction categories for The Snow Leopard, published in 1978, and again in fiction in 2008 for Shadow Country) and the author of more than thirty books, as well as a world renowned naturalist, explorer, and activist. A cofounder of the Paris Review, he was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of its William Dean Howells Award, a State Author of New York, and a recipient of the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, among many other honors. A longtime student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen eventually became a priest of the White Plum Asanga. He lived for more than 60 years on the South Fork of Long Island, where he worked as a commercial fisherman in his twenties and died on April 5, 2014.
- Soon after arriving at Auschwitz, Olin wonders if it’s even possible to “bear witness” to the Holocaust, especially given the number of years that have passed in the interim and how few survivors remain from that time. “Their mission here, however well-intended, is little more than a wave of parting to a ghostly horror withdrawing into myth,” he says. What do you think? Is it still possible to bear witness to the Holocaust? If yes, what does that witness look like to you? If not, why not?
- Peter Matthiessen was a lifelong naturalist who wrote prolifically about the “wild places” of the world—about far-flung landscapes and people who “lived on the edge of life.” Do you see elements of the natural or the wild in In Paradise? Where?
- A distinct thread of dark humor wends its way through In Paradise, emerging in Earwig’s provocations, Olin’s musings, and the interactions of the disparate groups on the retreat. What purpose can humor serve in a work like this?
- Olin, when reflecting on the seminal Holocaust works of Levi and Borowski, muses that even the victims weren’t truly innocent in the death camps—that everyone was complicit, except for the children. He echoes Viktor Frankl’s infamous line, “We who have come back, we know. The best of us did not return.” As members of the same race, Olin insists, we all share culpability. What do you think?
- The epigraph that opens In Paradise is quoted again during the scene of “the dancing.” How do you interpret Akhmatova’spoem? What is that “something not known . . . but wild in our breast for centuries”? How does it relate to the dance? To In Paradise as a whole?
- On the surface, Olin and Earwig seem to be diametrically opposed. Do you see any parallels between their characters, in what they are searching for, or how they make sense of their personal histories? What does In Paradise have to say about questions of home and longing and identity?
- What do you think Ben Lama means when he says, “In this place, we are all struggling with our dark angels?”
- Olin, after reading Sister Catherine’s diary, recites the parable from the Gospel of Luke about Christ and the penitent thief crucified alongside him, in which the thief begs to be taken to Paradise, and Christ responds, “No, friend, we are in Paradise right now.” Why do you think Matthiessen drew the title of his book from this story?
- A longtime student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen participated in three witness-bearing retreats at Auschwitz in the later years of his life and had long wanted to write about what he experienced there. But as “a non-Jewish American journalist” he felt he had “no right to do so” as nonfiction. Who do you feel has agency when it comes to telling the stories of genocide? Does this differ from the telling of other truths? Should this be true?
- One of the major themes of In Paradise is love—sacred love, but also erotic love, and, as with Olin’s feelings for Sister Catherine, the connection between the two. How did you perceive their relationship? Why?