Peter Matthiessen died of leukemia April 5, three days before publication of his curiously unfulfilling final novel. A complex man whose 86 years encompassed espionage, writing, naturalism and meditation, Mr. Matthiessen focused on big themes such as ecology, spirituality and identity. Emphatically not a writer of “entertainments,” he is the only person to have won the National Book Award in both fiction (“Shadow Country,” 2008) and nonfiction (“The Snow Leopard,” 1979).
Spirituality, identity, and the way they blend figure in this book of transformation. It’s a deep one, if brief, but its concerns outweigh its writing.
“In Paradise” is the story of a group of people of various nationalities, some Holocaust-associated, others not, gathered for a weeklong retreat at the Auschwitz death camp near the Polish city of Oswiecim. Joining them is Clements Olin, an American academic there to research a Polish writer named Borowski and, perhaps, bring clarity and closure to the mysterious suicide of a former relative of his, a Pole who may have been Jewish.
Olin’s quest is far more than intellectual. It strikes at the heart of his own identity and ultimately resolves who Olin is, both for himself and for people on the retreat whom he desires and with whom he clashes.
Those are, respectively, the ambivalent, modern Catherine, “a sister of Christ” studying to be a Franciscan nun whom Olin craves, and Earwig, a disagreeable Romanian-American Jew (or Gypsy? It’s unclear) who serves as the novel’s chorus and conscience.
This book also is a story about survivor guilt, about the universal complicity that, Matthiessen suggests, enabled such Nazi genocide factories as Auschwitz and Birkenau. A macabre way to put it is to say that “In Paradise” is about crashing a party too late.
The setting, of course, is automatically resonant, and the conceit of the book — a getaway in which participants “live” in different parts of the death camp the better to expiate themselves — is original. In addition, Matthiessen touches on history, literature, ecstasy and community provocatively.
But outside of Earwig and Olin, the characters are underwritten. They seem largely symbolic and never take on the quality of humanity that makes fiction absorbing. Reading the somewhat contrived “In Paradise” is like watching the film of a stage play.
Yet this minimalist, abstract novel has its pleasures, like this description of Earwig, who begins as Olin’s nemesis but ends as a kind of soul mate:
“The unshaven G. Earwig is squat, round-shouldered, compact — a build Olin associates with city cabbies and cigar store proprietors, thickset short men with loud horse ballpark voices.”
In sometimes contentious dialogue, retreat participants air out their differences, bait each other, reconcile warily, discuss varying degrees of guilt about the Holocaust, and ultimately dance at Auschwitz. A guilty pleasure for some, a delight to others, that dance is an apt symbol of the transformation Matthiessen suggests is Olin’s goal.
It also speaks to the ambiguity Olin feels toward Catherine, an ambiguity of age and religion and intent. One only wishes that Mr. Matthiessen had written that relationship larger and deeper, instead of spending time on lesser characters, spreading his imagination and thoughtfulness too thin.
Toward the end, the novel gains momentum. Freed from the enlightening, yet disturbing, confines of Auschwitz, Olin and Catherine meet in Cracow, on their way home. Mr. Matthiessen effectively describes the ambivalence of their relationship, ending his novel on a wan, knowing note. One could say this work, which began as a philosophical inquiry, ends as a story of hearts breaking.
Despite the poignancy and deftness of its ending, “In Paradise” feels rushed, almost unfinished. Had Mr. Matthiessen lived longer, he might have taken the story of Olin and Catherine to another level.
Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News (firstname.lastname@example.org).