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VINE VOICEon March 3, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It’s a more than daunting task to review this work by Peter Matthiessen, whom I and many others regard as one of the two or three finest living American writers: A work set in Auschwitz during the 1990s whose main character, Clements Olin, an alter ego of the author himself, who comes, primarily, as it turns out, to see if he can discover anything about the woman who was his mother. But that’s not what makes it hard to review. Everyone who attends this gathering to “bear witness” is spiritually stripped bare during the novel and taken to task for sentimentality, lies and sloppy thinking, including: American Jews, Israeli Jews, Poles, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Auschwitz survivors and, not least, Zen adherents such as Clements Olin himself. The very term “bear witness” is taken to task as rank hypocrisy and sentimentalism, mainly by the character known through most of the book as Earwig. Every participant has his or her perversities, hatreds, deep character flaws. There is an entire chapter entitled “Dancing At Auschwitz” concerning a dance held by some of the participants in the “bear witness” gathering and the repercussions and recriminations that follow it. The very title of the chapter is bound to throw many off, never mind the contents. About these things, all I can do is let the prospective reader know what to expect. Pray, don’t approach the book with a cocksure attitude towards the Holocaust, save that it happened. The only ones - and none of them are at the gathering - who come across as thoroughly in the wrong are those who deny that the genocide took place.

So, you’re forewarned about all that. The strengths of the book, it seems to me, remain Matthiessen’s fearless, virtuosic writing and what to me is the pith of the novel, encapsulated in Anna Akhmatova’s poem which serves as the epigraph to the book which ends::

“- something not known to anyone at all
But wild in our breast for centuries.”

Neither the poet nor Clements Olin can give this thing a name, but it has to do with something deep in the heart of man, something to do with falling in love, something so akin to to despair, that it might be called despair’s obverse side. But this meditation on human heartbreak and loss, on all the genocides which have happened, which are happening and which shall happen in mankind’s sojourn on the Earth is not for the sappy nor for those who have some Manichean view of the universe. If you’re absolutely sure that you’re in the right, this book will flay you alive.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by apprising the would-be reader that the book does not end on a cheerful note, but rather a heartbroken one. the penultimate scene, Clements visits a Polish cathedral, famed for its stained glass, and is alone in it during a thunderstorm:

“In the high windows, ice blues of the firmament pierce wild red cells; all Heaven has been murdered, set afire. The winter sunlight comes and goes, shadows sweep past; the burning panes are lashed by sheets of rain. In that instant, as a sun shaft reignites the colors, the fire blood, the organ shriek, bind his mortal senses hard and tight as a pennant whipped by wind round its pole.”

We have this splendour of prose which, though it leave you feeling as a pennant whipped by wind round its pole, will also leave you in awe that we still have a writer of Matthiessen’s scope and prescience under the sun.
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VINE VOICEon March 21, 2014
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If you read Peter Matthiessen you must have wondered if his obsession with E.J. Watson would ever wane. His decades long examination into the life and death of one of Florida’s most colorful scoundrels and visionaries spanned thousands of pages.

IN PARADISE finds Matthiessen’s talents turned to the Holocaust and the result is a powerful, morally ambiguous examination of our responses to the Shoah. D. Clements Olin is the putative protagonist of the novel, the son of a Polish calvary officer who fled, along with his landed and titled parents, before Germany’s invasion of Poland in the years that preceded World War II. Olin’s mother…well, let’s leave that to the book.

Olin searches for family and emotions. He is a near affectless man, unsuccessful in marriage, marginally competent in his career, which, of course, is academia. Ostensibly he is examining the life of Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish poet who survived the camps only to commit suicide in 1951 three days after the birth of his daughter.

He joins a disparate group that visits Auschwitz and Birkenau. Germans who want to expiate a national guilt, Catholic clergy who bristle at the Church’s blind eye during the Final Solution, Poles who steadfastly claim ignorance of what occurred under their very eyes, and Jews—survivors and others—who return to confirm man’s capacity for evil.

Yet even the survivors are challenged. In surviving the camps many are asked what they had to do to live through the horror. “Reading Borowski was Olin’s first exposure to the swarming scene of terror on this platform, the howls of lost children running everywhere and nowhere ‘like wild dogs,’ the young mother so frantic to be spared that she forsakes the little boy calling Mama! Mama! Who runs behind here (‘Oh no, sir! He’s not mine!’), casting away the last of her humanity for a few more hours of excruciating life.”

The most intriguing character is G. Earwig, an improbably name, “unattached” pilgrim, whose caustic outbursts and outrageous comments, ecumenically directed at everyone, make him the pariah of the group.

The writing about the camps is spare, wintry, a landscape devoid of life. In one of the preserved barracks “a wistful child has scrawled on the wall: ‘No butterflies live here.’” This poignant image is somehow more powerful than the hill of empty shoes or the piles of human hair.

Set in 1996, amidst the turmoil and renewed genocide in Eastern Europe, IN PARADISE offers a bleak, hopeless view of man.
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Readers familiar with Peter Matthiessen's earlier novels will find some qualities that they already value, but in many ways this is a new direction for Matthiessen, an uncompromising and occasionally fierce exploration of the ways human evil flourishes, as well as the bewilderment, even despair, those who try to oppose evil may experience at their repeated failures. Matthiessen quotes a poem by Anna Akhmatova as an epigraph--it begins "Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,/Death's black wing scrapes the air," and that is fair warning. A visit to Auschwitz--the most notorious in some ways of the Nazi death camps--is not an opportunity to salve one's personal guilt, nor to plump up one's easy conscience and self-esteem, as the central character, Prof. Clements Olin, discovers, to his pain but also, perhaps, toward his enlightenment.

There is nothing simple about this narrative, though the situation can sound simple: Prof. Olin, a student of modern Slavic literature with a special interest in the works that emerged from the Holocaust, arrives in Poland on his way to Auschwitz, where he is to join (more as an observer than participant, or so he thinks) an ecumenical religious group planning to spend days on the selection ramp, meditating and witnessing on behalf of the murdered millions. Olin (whose family name has a history as that of an aristocratic family, Olinsky, who held property in the vicinity of Oswiecim) is also, secretly, in search of information about his mother, who did not leave for America when Olin's father and grandparents fled.

Olin encounters a wide variety of people--a "Nordic-Jew" as his roommate; a group of Zen meditators; Jewish groups from Israel and America, German descendants of SS officers, a Polish priest, a pair of novices aspiring to be nuns, a defrocked monk, and more. The uneasy interactions among these disparate people, occasionally bursting into heated argument as their stereotypic assumptions and prejudices emerge to contradict the official reasons for their presence--to atone for the sins of the Holocaust and to forge unity among the various religious and social views they bring with them. In the cold and oppressive environment of the remains of the death camp, the psychological impact of the memories--both stimulated by documentary films and museum exhibits and also evoked by the feelings of the "presence" of the millions of dead--is heavy and unsettling. Olin, who expects to be engaged at a scholarly or academic level, even in approaching his search for evidence of his mother's fate, undergoes strong challenges to his sense of his self--more than just "identity crisis," the near collapse of his sense of who he is and why he continues to live.

Matthiessen has presented intense and powerful characters in earlier works--Far Tortuga, Killing Mr. Watson, especially--but here he is probing deeper and more painfully into the fundamental questions of the relation between our "selves" and our responsibility for behavior--both our own behavior and that which we witness and either condone or try to ignore or, under some circumstances, stand up, oppose, resist, even attempt to prevent or stop altogether. Part of the testing of those human characteristics in this novel comes from the presence of a Mr. G. Earwig (an assumed name, of course) who purposely separates himself from all the others, mocking, reprimanding, denouncing, deeply insulting the others, calling into question all of their values and characters and assumptions. He is, in this way, a person in the mold of Thersites, the mocking cynic and nihilist who appears in Homer's Iliad, but also, even more destructively, in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. He becomes the dark side of Olin as the narrative progresses, and his presence, and then his life story (which may or may not be true) serve as catalysts for Olin's own crisis of identity.

There are other elements of Olin's story that are better left for the reader to discover. But as my title for this review indicates, there are no easy ways out of the moral challenges and dilemmas these characters face, and no simple resolution. This novel leaves this reader shaken and impressed. Yes, some parts of it are open to question or criticism, but the quibbles are unworthy of mention. Yes, Olin himself reminds us that many have felt that there is an impropriety, an inauthenticity, even an outright dishonesty in writing about the Holocaust by anyone who did not experience and survive it. From that perspective, all others should be silent. But Matthiessen makes a powerful case for the honest and wrenching effort to confront that history, even as one who comes at it from a position of privileged distance, comfort, abstraction and analysis. Certainly this is a novel worth reading, and more than once.
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Peter Matthiesen's title comes from an apocryphal version of the Crucifixion story. Where in the Bible Christ promises the repentant thief hanging on the cross beside him, 'Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,' in this version "Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, 'You are in Paradise RIGHT NOW'." Strange to think that the extermination camp at Auschwitz, where Matthiesen's novel is set, could ever be thought of as Paradise; did not John Paul II, the first Polish Pope, call this site Golgotha, after the Place of the Skull, where Christ was crucified? Yet one of the characters in the novel, a young Polish nun, has also mentioned the teaching of St. Catherine of Siena, her namesake: "All the way to Heaven is Heaven." In other words, that the journey to Paradise is Paradise itself, however unspeakable the stations on the way.

Beginning my review with this obscure paradox of Christian theology, I am reflecting a couple of key points about Matthiesen's magnificent book. First, that a lot of it consists of philosophical discussion, sometimes gentle, sometimes angry; this is not a novel you read primarily for plot or even for character. Secondly, a Holocaust novel with as many gentile characters as Jewish ones is rather unusual. The occasion is an ecumenical retreat organized in 1996, where participants of many faiths would camp out in the empty buildings of Auschwitz, meditate, and bear witness. There are a few very old Jewish survivors, some Rabbis, and several from later generations who have lost family members. There are a number of Germans, including some whose parents served with the SS. The leader of the retreat is one of several Buddhists. There are two Catholic nuns and one older Polish priest; almost as significant a topic as the Shoah itself is the question of the complicity of the Catholic Church in allowing it to happen. When the priest offers an anodyne prayer of reconciliation on the selection ramp at Birkenau, the young nun breaks ranks to prostrate herself in apology to the murdered on behalf of her fellow Christians.

Fifty years on, as Matthiesen recognizes, the Shoah may already be losing its power as a cautionary lesson. One of his most brilliant strokes to prevent the easy reiteration of philosophical platitudes is to introduce an utterly objectionable character, going by the name of G. Earwig, whose offensive and occasionally obscene interjections nonetheless contain a grain of truth. He may owe a debt to what Francine Prose did in the Auschwitz novella in her GUIDED TOURS OF HELL. But an even greater one, as one fellow reviewer has pointed out, to Homer and Shakespeare's Thersites and his scabrous comments on the Trojan War.

Against him, he sets the protagonist, the rational non-believer, American poet and academic Clements Olin. His Protestant grandparents, minor Polish aristocracy with an estate near the original Oswiecim, emigrated to the US before the War, but there are still personal family mysteries he hopes to uncover. It is interesting to see the effect the terrible place has upon this detached observer with no personal connection that he knows about, other than an accident of family history. It is also interesting to see how his responses to others in the group become personalized, in one case leading to an inappropriate erotic attraction. I am not sure that Matthiesen knew how to run to ground all the hares he started with this character, and there are a few loose ends. But this at first detached character ends up as the one giving the novel its greatest humanity.

The final image of the book is a modern stained-glass window in the Franciscan Church in Krakow. Google it (I'll give the link in a comment); like the novel itself, it is both terrible and transcendent.
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Peter Matthiessen has said this about his latest novel: "At age 86, it may be my last word." If so, that would be a pity. Mr. Matthiessen has a strong voice and an inimitable style. For many readers, this may very well be a 5-star book and the fact that it wasn't for me has far more to do with my reading tastes than it does with the quality of the writing.

That being said, this is a book more for the head than for the heart. It's a somber book, Clements Olin - an American academic of Polish descent - joins others on painful missions incompletely understood at the infamous death camp of Auschwitz. The ragtag group - stricken descendants of the "perpetrators", relatives of the victims, morbid curiosity seekers - all gather to pay witness.

But witness to what, exactly? "The emptiness? The silence? What can they hope to offer besides prayer in belated atonement?" Together and in pairs, they address anti-Semitism, man's capacity for evil, and "confronting the Nazi within." As the days pass, tensions bubble to the surface, bickering becomes commonplace, and core secrets begin to get unveiled. And gradually, Clements Olin gravitates towards Sister Catherine, a young nun who is also questioning the foundation of her life.

There is a great deal of philosophizing (Can those who were penetrated by the horror truly be transported by passion? Does the line dividing good and evil cut through the heart of every human being? Is any nation or any man truly unstained?) Yet I could not shake the feeling that this gathering was a type of incubator that fertilized these musings. In tone and in style, a certain formality - call it a type of contemplation--distanced me from what should have been a far more intense reading experience.

In Paradise will make you think. If it makes you feel is another matter. Like Clements Olin - an observer who needs to gradually remove his cloak and bear witness - the reader often has the feeling of being on the sidelines of history. But maybe that is the point.
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HALL OF FAMEon April 3, 2014
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Acclaimed by William Styron as "...a writer of phenomenal scope and versatility", Peter Mathiessen's latest novel, "In Paradise", is an unforgettable novel of Holocaust remembrance which will be viewed not only as among this year's best, but as one of his finest novels in his long storied literary career. It is an especially moving, often poignant, novel that deals not only with history, but also remembrance and reconciliation as it pertains to the Shoah, the Holocaust, itself. During a week-long remembrance by more than one hundred people at Auschwitz in the late fall of 1996, Matthiessen introduces us to a most captivating, quite compelling, cast of characters, of whom the most memorable is an American scholar, Clement Olin, a descendant of Polish aristocracy, who attends merely to research the odd suicide of an Auschwitz survivor, feeling disengaged from those in attendance as one of the few who isn't Jewish. What Olin discovers will shatter his knowledge of his family's history immediately before and during World War II, and more importantly, alter forever, his own understanding of who he is, exposing a dark secret hidden carefully by his parents for decades. Matthiessen adroitly weaves in the Holocaust's Polish history with the stories of those attending the Auschwitz memorial, as we see them clash over contemporary issues like the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as lingering anti-Semitism expressed by some of the local Polish population near Auschwitz. Matthiessen demonstrates anew why he is worthy of Styron's notable accolade, reminding readers that he is indeed a master storyteller and prose stylist who ranks among the finest writers in American fiction, as well as nonfiction. What Matthiessen has written is for me, the best new novel I have read so far this year. I won't be surprised if "In Paradise" is short-listed for many literary prizes; even if it isn't, it will be remembered as one of the best novels published this year.
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on April 21, 2014
IN PARADISE is the novelization of a spiritual retreat at Auschwitz attended by the author. The book is set in 1996, just at the point in time when many victims and perpetrators of the Shoah were beginning to depart this life. Hence, many of the characters IN PARADISE are elderly men and women attempting to come to terms with the full trajectories of their lives.

While Matthiessen was writing IN PARADISE he was diagnosed with leukemia. He, of course, did not know whether he would live to finish the book. He did, and died at age 86, but two days before its publication. IN PARADISE has not an unfinished feel to it, but an unpolished one, the work of a sculptor who left rough stone around a carefully carven figure. The book is short (about 225 pages) and deceptively simple in terms of story and plot, but it is richly textured and deserves many re-readings. Does Matthiessen succeed with this ambitious yet humble novel? He succeeds in telling us one version of one story. Everyone's stories will be different. And yet, in the end, the same. In the end, there will be no stories.

In Auschwitz, that place of death, Matthiessen, through his main character, Dr. Clements Olin (nee Olinski) must confront not just the tortured stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, but the tortured stories of the other selves with whom we share this life. The retreat coordinator, Ben Lama (Matthiessen's Zen teacher Bernie Glassman in a barely-disguised characterization) acts as moderator and mediator, but most of Olin's travels IN PARADISE are intensely personal and internal, with most of the other characters acting as foils. There is rage, there is pain, but there is also joy among the retreatants, a joy which they question and challenge in retrospect. There is also love, tragic, isolated, and bittersweet, doomed. Auschwitz, in short, is the human condition set in concrete and barbed wire.

Though he never acknowledges his own mortality directly in the pages of IN PARADISE, Matthiessen knew he was dying as he wrote this book, and so much of the writing has a reflectiveness and a numinance that becomes evident to the reader in the know. It is vexedly difficult to write well about the death camps under any circumstances, but Matthiessen, facing his own extinction at some unknown point in time, is able to communicate not only in words but in the spaces between the words. Whether he is supposed to be Clements Olin is never clear, and neither does it matter.

In the end, we are all facing that long, terrible, and yet too-short walk along the platform to a place we know nothing of. Paradise.
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VINE VOICEon April 7, 2014
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A book about Auschwitz titled "In Paradise?":

"Christ crucified is importuned by a penitent thief, in agony on his own cross on that barren hillside.
'I beseech thee, Jesus, take me with you to Paradise!' In traditional gospels, Jesus responds,
'Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise," but in an older text -Eastern Orthodox or the
Apocrypha, perhaps? -- Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, 'You are in Paradise right now.'"

This troubling parable presented in Chapter 9, is apparently the source of the provocative title. Peter Mattheissen, knew he was dying as he wrote this book. Two days before the publication of this book, the author passed away from leukemia. The April 6, 2014 issue of The New York Times Magazine, in anticipation of this book, presented a moving profile of the dying Mattheissen. The photograph that accompanied that feature showing a weathered, wrinkled, stone-like imagine contrasts markedly from the photograph featured on the dust jacket. That feature at [...] is well worth the time of anyone who is considering reading this book. For the burden of establishing the standing to write a serious book of fiction about Auschwitz is a very heavy one.

Even great writers like William Styron, a close friend of Mattheissen, in "Sophie's Choice" seemed to lose his way, descending into a virtual miasma of pornographic depictions of degradation and despair while framing a somewhat problematic critique of Hannah Arendt's concept of the banality of evil. Great writers such as Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, and, perhaps most prominently, Elie Wiesel in "Night", who lived through the unthinkable at Auschwitz have offered definitive writings, both fiction and non-fiction.

Mattheissen attended a retreat of the sort that serves as the basis for "In Paradise" in 1996 and clearly has drawn heavily from that experience. In some ways, his book is the flipside of Plato's Symposium where over an extended dinner notable figures from the golden age of Athens discuss love. Here, a group of approximately 140 individuals -- mostly Jewish, but including Polish intellectuals, Germans including some related to those who executed the despicable and evil designs of Hitler's Final Solution, a few figures from the Catholic Church, and many Buddhists -- gather to meditate and discuss what to make of Auschwitz. The primary meditation site is the point where the incoming victims of the Nazis were assigned their various stations, be it immediate extermination or the death-in-life existence awaiting another date in the showers.

The central figure is D. Clement Olin, a respected American professor, who goes to the retreat, ostensibly for purposes of research. Olin was born in Poland but was spirited out as an infant by his father's family while his mother was left behind on the eve of the German decimation of Poland's leading figures, undesirables, and Jews. His father's family on the edges of Polish nobility had left for America shortly before.

Olin is at once insightful and self-deluding, His life reflects the measured, subtle disdain his father's family had for him. He would be a character well worth exploring in a novel set in another environment, but while some of his significant personal travails in Auschwitz resonate with the setting, others are simply inappropriate. (More cannot be said without spoiling the book for those who have yet to read it.)

As the New York Times profile establishes, Peter Mattheissen is a truly exceptional individual who has written first-rate fiction and non-fiction. And his presentation of the various ways people have of approaching the outrage of Auschwitz both in and of itself and writ large is very thoughtful. References to Levi and, particularly, Borowski, are well developed. The poem from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova that serves at prologue is apropos and his ability to explain seemingly unsettling moments of transcendent joy amid the morose, dank, scene of horror is brilliant.

But the personal melodrama of Olin, is at best, distracting; some of it reeks of soap opera. A serious writer who decides to set a story in Auschwitz, be it during the Holocaust or in its wake, assumes obligations that almost any other setting does not require. Mattheissen clearly knew this, nearing the end of the book, he quotes Borowski:

"In this war morality . . . the ideals of freedom, justice, and human dignity had all slid off man like a rotten rag.
We said there is no crime that a man will not commit in order to save himself. And, having save himself, he will
commit crimes for increasingly trivial reasons . . first out of duty, then from habit, and finally -- for pleasure."

In this context, it may be appropriate to discuss a particular individuals flawed ability to understand his own motives. But not in all spheres of everyday life. Serious, provocative questions may be raised about those who committed the acts of atrocity, those who endured it, those who attempted to help, and those who either were actively complicit or who stood by while these things occurred. One may question whether the Holocaust was a unique event, what people owe each other. But the personal melodrama of one visiting Auschwitz is not appropriate and taints what is otherwise a book that closely explores how we may think about the unthinkable.
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In so many ways, the choice of Auschwitz as a subject was a daring one for a novel, even for a writer as talented as Peter Matthiessen. Even more audacious was his choice to make the central focus of the book not a survivor, or even a Jew trying to honor the spirit of the six million dead in the Holocaust, but Clements Olin. He's a scholar, a Buddhist, but an oddly world-weary (rather than life-affirming) one, and has childhood roots in the Polish countryside nearby that he'll explore even as he pursues his academic interest in one of the most famous writers to have (briefly) survived Auschwitz, Tadeusz Borowski.

Borowski is author of "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman", and with books like that about the concentration camp experience, what role is there for fictional creatures like Olin or real life authors like Matthiessen? The latter, certainly, seems well aware of that absurdity, creating in the novel the quasi-comical character of Georgie, one of Olin's fellow participants on an ecumenical retreat at Auschwitz, who taunts the scholar maybe he'll somehow come up with "some new angle on mass murder" that hasn't already been explored?

There are similar ironies, large and small, throughout this book, starting with the largest one of all -- the very idea of holding a spiritual retreat at a death camp. What kind of spiritual or other epiphany can be expected at such a site? What can compensate or offset the overwhelming evil -- underscored by the bleakness of the weather and the setting that Matthiessen so vividly captures? Lust? Dance? Rhetoric? The power of religious conviction?

Compared to a handful of Matthiessen's other books that I've read, this is a spare book, pared down to its bones, and that is just what is called for. What is left is pitch perfect. I don't know if it's his best book, but it certainly eschews easy sentimentality or, indeed, anything that you might expect to find in a "Holocaust" novel, instead opting for a kind of rigorous intellectual and emotional honesty that sits beautifully beside the wonderful prose.

Would that all writers could conclude their careers on such a high note. The only pity is that readers won't be able to look forward to more novels of its ilk from this author.
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on May 12, 2014
As a Jewish woman born in the USA in 1951, my life was dominated by the shadow of the Holocaust. Parents, relatives, neighbors, the whole world into which I came was shattered by the revelations from Europe. And the annual Easter rampage by the Polish Catholic kids, the only other ethnic group in the neighborhood, turning on the Jewish kids after mass, made it very real indeed. So I have extensively read about and pondered on the meaning of the Shoah to me, to Jews, to Americans, etc.

In Paradise is about an ecumenical Zen retreat at the remains of the Auschwitz death camp in the middle of winter. The author has attended three such retreats led by Roshi Ben Glassman, the Ben Lama of the novel. He has said he felt unqualified to write about the Holocaust, not being Jewish, but as he approached the end of his life he wanted to contribute his say and chose fiction as the appropriate medium . I am sure that only through fiction could he put into the voices and experiences of his characters the thoughts and observations he felt compelled to share without violating the confidences of actual attendees.

There is little action, of course, meditation being the opposite of action. It is not doing, not acting, while being fully present, focusing the mind on the breath or on a koan, a puzzle not solvable through normal logic. In this case, the koan is the death camp itself, a representation of pure evil. I have myself experienced the kind of transcendence after long meditation which comes to many of the characters, and Matthiessen does as good a job as I can imagine describing it. It is something to be felt, not something amenable to words, but he does well.

As the author says, there is nothing new to be learned, and there can be no interpretation that has not been better said by survivors. There is only the coming to grips with the reality of Auschwitz. The book raises several key questions or caused them to arise within me. Is such evil part of being human? (I think so, homo sapiens being the only species which has annihilated all similar species, and then, rather than dealing with its propensity for violence, had the audacity to claim its singularity as a sign of God's love!) Is any one truly innocent with regard to the Holocaust? (I think so, but how hard did most Jews work to free the others trapped in Europe? Was there any survivor who made it without sacrificing another?) Would the Jews themselves have intervened if the Holocaust had been limited to gypsies and homosexuals? (I doubt it.) What subtle racism do I carry? What was the level of complicity of the Catholic Church? What became of those brave souls who tried to get the Vatican to intervene? Is it time the Jews more fully recognize the others, the majority of the 14 million killed by the Nazis? And a key question of my life - what does it mean to be Jewish?

The characters are stripped bare as they sit in this harshest of environments, fed meager and untasty food, surviving in far greater comfort, of course, than the inmates, but still deprived of much we take for granted. What action there is comes with the clash between personalities and ethnic groups. Each participant has come with a question, whether or not they realize at the outset. The main character, a descendant of the Polish nobility raised in the USA, learns the answer to the biggest question of his life, and is still reeling at the end. For the others, also, many of the questions are answered. Some, survivors or otherwise, are drawn to visit repeatedly, perhaps by nagging questions they cannot answer?

There is an impossible romance between the protagonist and a brave young novice, each reaching out tentatively from loneliness and pain. We long to see them find joy in each other, but could they do so without one destroying the other? Perhaps the romance is symbolic of the central theme of the novel - can we fully grasp man's propensity for evil and still love and accept ourselves?

Very highly recommended reading for anyone trying to understand the horrors of the twentieth century or the ongoing horrors of our current epoch.
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