Before passing away last April at the ripe old age of 86, Peter Matthiessen had lived a life most writers could only dream of. After graduating from Yale, he moved to Paris and hung out with American literary icons William Styron and James Baldwin. While in Paris he co-founded with George Plimpton and a few others the esteemed literary journal The Paris Review. Over his lengthy career Matthiessen wrote over 30 books, with two of them adapted to film. He’s also probably the only writer to win the National Book Award three times, once for fiction and twice for nonfiction. He was also a notable environmentalist and proponent of Native American rights. On top of it, while living in Paris and writing for The Paris Review he was secretly a CIA agent. But I’m embarked to say I’d never heard of this guy until three weeks ago.
Yes, it was only three weeks ago at the public library when I came across a copy of his final book, In Paradise: A Novel. Seeing it was a novel about Auschwitz and knowing that the former Nazi death camp was constructed in Poland, I figured I could read the book for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. So, even though I was sadly ignorant of the novel’s accomplished author, I took a chance and grabbed it. After starting In Paradise and succumbing to a few distractions which kept me from finishing it sooner than I should have I eventually finished it. While I didn’t end up liking In Paradise as much as I would have hoped, I still came away from Matthiessen’s last novel with a deep respect for late author’s ability to write. But more importantly, to write well.
In Paradise tells the story of a diverse group of international characters, who in 1996 have gathered at Auschwitz as a part of a spiritual retreat. While most have come in search of meaning and “closure” concerning one of the 20th century’s most horrific episodes, Polish-American academic Clements Olin has come to former death camp with his own, slightly more personal reasons. But because this is a diverse group of many nationalities, world views and religious convictions, quite quickly tensions arise and tempers flair.
I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second part, when Olin’s infatuation with a young Polish nun seems to overpower the storyline a bit. But still even with that, I found Matthiessen’s storytelling direct, while at the same time nuanced. In his world human beings are never simple and at best flawed. Speaking from my own personal experience, I couldn’t agree more with the late Peter Matthiessen.