American professor reflects on evil during a death camp pilgrimage in Peter Matthiessen’s ‘In Paradise’

Peter Matthiessen, 86, has suggested that In Paradise “may be my last word.” Please, no. Not this forlorn meditation, dark, so beset with melancholy. I don’t want to think that the author of Shadow Country, At Play In the Fields of the Lord, The Snow Leopard and Far Tortuga will go out with this bleak philosophical treatise, heavy with questions of alienation, misunderstanding, bigotry, guilt, evil, but scant of plot.

In Paradise recounts a two-week pilgrimage to Nazi Germany’s most notorious death camps, some half-century after liberation, by a disparate collection of surviving relatives, academics, clergy, nuns, historians, the children of Nazi soldiers. The visitors sleep in a dormitory that once housed SS guards. With a view: “A casement window overlooks the inner compound. Shards of fractured light express silhouettes of regimented barracks, hard-edged as a prison set on a storage set.”

Two weeks in Auschwitz, in 1996, won’t be mistaken for a year in Provence.

They gather in that awful place “to bear witness,” an abstract exercise that manifests as bursts of anger and resentment and blame. And a torrent of self-doubt. “He will ask himself over and over the question that must plague all of them to some degree: could I have borne it? Could I have endured unceasing fear for even one day, far less a year, without succumbing to base acts of survival-at-any-cost for an extra crust or ladle of thin gruel?”

They wallow in the divisive resentments. Who has a right to bear witness? The Germans? Their Catholic collaborators? Why are the Poles so oblivious to their culpability after what occurred? What betrayals did the survivors concoct to escape their deaths? The conundrum, in the distant aftermath of such evil, as one of the pilgrims observes, becomes that “nobody knows whom to be angry with in such a place.”

We see this dismal excursion through Clement Olin, an American university professor, an expert on Holocaust literature, divorced, childless, a bit of a cynic and “prey most of his life to loneliness and nameless melancholy.” Olin ponders 50 years of Holocaust writings and wonders what his witnessing could add to the recollections of the survivors. “Vast emptiness, terminal silence, under a gray overcast withholding snow. Bearing witness? Dear God. In the echo of such desolation, what more witness could be needed. Vernichtungslager. Extermination Camp. That signified all by itself a mythic barbarism and depravity.”

In particular, Olin wants to puzzle out why Polish author and Holocaust memoirist Tadeusz Borowski could survive the horrors of Auschwitz then commit suicide just three days after the birth of his daughter. Olin leads us on a dreary quest.

But he has another, more personal motive for visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. Olin, who shortened his name from Olinsky, was born in a nearby town and had been spirited away from Poland by his father’s family as war seemed imminent. His unmarried mother, whom he can’t remember, was left behind with her parents and sister. She’s no more than a pretty face in an old photograph, her fate a mystery. His secondary mission is to find out what happened to Emmeline Allgier. Did she die behind these walls?

Matthiessen attended such a death camp pilgrimage in 1966. And the beauty of the book comes in his powerful descriptions. He becomes an artist, painting a desolate landscape, limiting his palette to grays and black, portraying a place so stifling that Olin feels he is “breathing the air of the Dark Ages.”

Another vivid picture comes as Olin stands at a killing chamber and imagines his own mother and her little sister in their final moments. “In the death struggle for the last exhausted air, the stronger clamber onto piles of the weaker, and the young woman shrieks back at her sister’s voiceless cry as [she] is down under the mess that wipes the round hole of her mouth from the face of the earth.”

Auschwitz provides an unlikely setting for a love story but, faint as it is, Olin entertains an infatuation with a much younger woman, Sister Catherine, a young nun at odds with the church hierarchy. But their spare romance is fleeting, doomed and hopeless as everything else about that cursed place.

The recurring question that nags at Olin and the other visitors — what can they add to all that has already been said and written and debated about the Holocaust? — also looms over In Paradise. But at least the author provides a clear answer to this question. With his command of the language, he can add something new and profound to that vast library of Holocaust literature. In Paradise allows Peter Matthiessen to once again demonstrate that he remains one of our most powerful writers.

But, please, don’t let this be the last word.

Fred Grimm is Miami Herald columnist.