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BOOK BIZ — Hard questions about humanity set against the Holocaust

Writer and conservationist Peter Matthiessen’s last book, In Paradise, was published just a few days after his death in April 2014. He was known for writing both fiction and nonfiction, and for being the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both. However, Matthiessen himself believed that he was primarily a fiction writer at heart, so it’s fitting that his final work was a novel.

And what a novel it is. Many of his earlier books explored themes around the environment and how human civilization has changed it throughout time. He also traveled extensively and his books served to highlight different cultures and ecosystems across the globe.

Here, however, he brings his pointed gaze squarely onto us, asking hard questions about the nature of good and evil and about the human condition. He does this in In Paradise by writing about the Holocaust.

Matthiessen was a Zen Buddhist, and starting in 1996, he attended three meditation retreats at the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. This experience would undoubtedly go on to inspire the fictional account of a similar retreat in In Paradise.

The main character here is the “Polish-born American poet and scholar,” Dr. Clements Olin. He is at the retreat, he tells the others, not to participate formally in the silent meditations, but instead, for research purposes. This is the first time Olin has ever visited the country of his birth. As the book unfolds, so does Olin’s personal history, which is more tightly bound to the Holocaust than he initially lets on.

Alongside him on the retreat is a diverse group of about 140 people, including Catholic nuns and a priest, a few young Germans, some elderly survivors of the Holocaust, Jewish rabbis, and several spiritual seekers. They are thrust together in meditation while sitting on, for example, the train platform where SS doctors sorted prisoners into those who would be put to work and those who would be put to death immediately. They sleep in the barracks that the Nazi officers used and eat in their cafeteria.

Emotions run high. Even in this most solemn of places, in the cold dark dampness of December, flashes of human frailty pop up, as the retreat members find themselves arguing and attacking one another personally, with some doubting others’ motivations for coming. They debate, too, about whether another Holocaust could happen, whether we have learned anything at all.

In Paradise asks some difficult questions about the limits of empathy and compassion, and the nature of evil and humanity. It’s a thought-provoking, intensely worthwhile book.

— LouAnn Lofton, mbj@msbusiness.com

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