Welcome back book worms! This month we read Peter Matthiessen’s final novel “In Paradise”. As always, spoilers are found throughout, so proceed with caution!
“In Paradise” broadly tells the story of Clements Olin and his experience at a Zen retreat held at the site of Auschwitz-Birkneau concentration camp, designed to allow participants to bear witness. He is a Polish-American Holocaust scholar who attends the retreat in study of the life of Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish poet and survivor of the camp who committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. The group includes over 100 others from all walks of life: American and Israeli Jews, Roman Catholics, Poles, Muslims and camp survivors. Of course, much of the novel revolves around their opinions of the Holocaust, the retreat, each other, and how best to bear witness to this tragedy.
Initially, Olin is quite removed from the activities of the retreat, almost like a voyeur. However, as the story moves along, we find Olin becoming more and more involved emotionally and physically in the happenings. And as this progression happens, the mystery around Olin begins to unravel and his motives for attending this retreat become much more clear. He speaks quite a bit about this family in America and his father, but his mother goes almost unmentioned. I didn’t notice her missing at first, but just when you start to wonder, Matthiessen reveals a bit more.
One scene in the novel that will likely stay for me a while is when some of the participants begin singing and dancing. In the midst of all this sadness, while bearing witness to one of the great tragedies of humanity, some decide to sing and dance. Naturally, those who decided to not partake were appalled; how dare they enjoy themselves! They’re standing in what was basically hell on earth!
This is the scene that is included in absolutely every review of “In Paradise” and has been interpreted all sorts of way. Yes, it may simply be that humanity can only manage and cope with tragedy by suppressing it and rebounding with celebration. But I like to think of it as a representation of resiliency. Just because you’re sad, doesn’t mean sadness defines you. You can be sad in a moment and then something happens or you think of a certain memory, and you’re happy the next. And I don’t think this is wrong. I think respect does need to be paid, but why does that mean we have to be sad? The dancing scene is a powerful one and, like I said, it will remain with me for a while. What did you think of this pivotal moment?
Thanks for joining July’s reading of “In Paradise”. For August, please read along with me and pick up “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood.