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Peter Mathiessen's 'In Paradise'

Half-way through Peter Mathiessen’s final novel, In Paradise, the chief character, Olin, tells what he says is an alternate version of the crucifixion story to Catherine, a young novice soon to take her religious vows. The good thief makes his request that Jesus take him to Paradise. Jesus responds, not by saying “Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,” but rather, “No, friend, we are in Paradise right now ”

The virtual blasphemy points at the crucial conflict of the novel, called of course In Paradise: overwhelming bleakness of death and yet redemptive transcendence. The physical “paradise” is the Auschwitz Concentration camp. The plot involves a retreat of one hundred participants fifty years after the liberation of the camps. The intent of the retreat is to allow those involved to come to terms with the death camp: they are survivors, bystanders, family members of those killed and of those who killed, some are local residents; but the majority come from many nations and represent different faiths.

There is a thwarted love story between Olin and Catherine as part of the plot, but it is pursued only within the menace of memory, the physical intimidation of the camp buildings and ruins as they inevitably force those who are on retreat to face “All Creation right here now.” It is the frightening inappropriateness of the developing affection of Olin and Catherine, one that they both register, that adds to the profound unease evoked by the narrative.

How does a writer “complicate” the Holocaust? Mathiessen’s artful, in the best sense, recourse is to allow his characters to keep vigil in the winter cold of the camp’s induction ramp, and then meet in the evening to offer personal testimonies and reactions to the others. Far from being a somber penitential exercise, we encounter an inevitably human response – anger, shame, vitriol, outraged proprietary claims, and deep irresolution.

Who owns the memory of the holocaust? How crassly commodified that phrasing sounds, but in a sense it is appropriation of the guilt, the accusation, the complicity and the pity that Mathiessen bravely dissects. And the writing is like a scalpel, cutting against easy prepossessions and facile emotion.
His characters are merciless in indictment of the Church, especially of the Polish wartime Church. The novice Catherine risks her vocation not in a secular love affair but in her public expression of sorrow over the complicity of her Church and countrymen in the Shoah.

There are no easy moments in Olin’s consciousness. He is pitilessly self-aware, self-reviling even as he seeks out Catherine against his better judgment. Her extraordinary maturity mirrors the waywardness of his passion, humiliating him in a place where passion rose with the smoke of the ovens.

This is a novel that will not relent and offers no easy resolution to what the Death Camps mean. One cannot simply rest with the banality of evil, or retreat to the incomprehension of monster executioners. In Paradise is where we stand, naked as Adam and Eve.

About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.



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You got me pondering whether to get this book . Probably will. The issue is still so important. The problem is that too many blame the Germans whereas this is really a human problem. Never happened in these numbers. But human history is full of strocities and wars.  The issue is that war is still considered the answer to problems. It is not. While action like what the US is now taken in Mosul is justified. It is the starting of wars and considering wars as a solution that is the problem. The Vietnam War, the Iraqi war were decidedly unnecessary and immoral. And now the Israelis are showing that they have not learned the lesson of the Holocaust as they continue to terrify Palestinians. So it is a human problem that the party of war continues. 

Obama has his problems. But he was right to hesitate in Syria and right to get out of Iraq. The lesson that the Iraqis are learning now are ones that they would have resisted without seeing how they utterly failed in governing. 

The Holocaust is clear and  should be a source of renewal and repentance. But human evil continues at the same pace. 

Hesitate in Syria? Over one hundred thousand men ,women and children murdered,thousands displaced  and some crucified and  beheaded including the latest American yesterday, and the mantra we keep hearing is that stopping ISIS is the thing to do in Iraq but the Assad's campaign of genocide against Sunnis and ISIS's campaign of terror and  genocide against everyone else is not appalling enough to stop, if it's happening Syria.It was the hesitation in Syria , on the preterxt that that we can't predict what would happen after Assad, and/ or that we can't distinguish extremist fanatics from moderate freedom fighters,or the rationale; aw shucks ,maybe we should have acted initially when there were plenty of moderate freedom fighters but we didn't and so  ISIS are empowered  therefore let's allow ISIS horrors and Assad's horrors  to continue in Syria; that makes us today complicit with a holocaust  in Syria. It was our flagrant indifference, even glee[with few exceptions]; Muslims killing Muslims let Allah sort it out, in Syria, even after banned weapons were used on civilians, that gave Sunnis a sense that the world would stand by and allow a holocaust of Sunni Syrians,which empowered and emboldened extremist  fanatics from everywhere to converge there to fight Assad .In Iraq  where a Maliki Shia government was oppressing the Sunnis, the same sentiment prevailed; the world is indifferent to tyranical oppression of Sunnis Iraqis. Hence ISIS fanatics[are they all fanatics?, I wonder or just some  and the disaffected and oppressed Sunnis have no recourse but to jump on their band wagon as they are the only ones on the offensive against the opressive Baghdad government and the genocidal Assad government] gets empowered there too. 

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