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4.8 out of 5 stars
In Paradise
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on 15 March 2017
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on 11 April 2017
Final thought provoking novel from author. Transports you to a place in the human psyche we are reticent to go.
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on 5 April 2014
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, case 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. Matthiesen 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 Matthiesen 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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 1 May 2014
Currently I am the 38th person to review Peter Matthiessen's new book, "In Paradise: A Novel", on Amazon/US. The reviews have been universally excellent; most are as good as the book itself. I can't possibly add anything to the "conversation", other to ask why Peter Mattheissen chose this subject for his last book.

Peter Matthiessen died earlier this month. His NYT obituary makes a point about his practice of Zen meditation. "In Paradise" is about a Zen retreat in the mid-1990's to the Auschwitz/Birkenau Concentration Camp outside Crakow. The main character, a professor named D Clements Olin, is participating in the retreat, though he doesn't appear to practice Zen. Neither do a number of other retreat participants; the group is a mix of Germans, Buddhists, Jews, Catholic Poles, and other assorted people. Everybody in the group seem to be there for different reasons, most of the reasons known only to each participant. Clements Olin is there to write about and...search a bit for his own past. He is Polish by birth, and was sent to live in safety in the United States right after his birth in the late 1930's. His mother was left behind in Osweisem and was never heard from again. He had been raised by his father and grandparents in Boston.

Clements Olin is by this time of his life at sixes and sevens. Not successful in love, he is respected by his teaching colleagues, but he has very little personal life. Is he hoping to find some clue to his identity by trying to find what happened to his mother? Possibly, probably. (Certainly another man attending was trying to find out his own real name; having separated from his family at a young age, this old man searching and searching...) The others attending the retreat are a bit "stock" figures; angry Israelis, anti-Semitic Polish religious, fighting feminists. But Clements Olin is not a "stock" figure. I think he's Peter Mattheissen or someone he knew. (That is obviously speculation on my part...)

The story covers a week or so, beginning with Olin's arrival in Crakow and his missing the bus taking the group to Auschwitz, where the retreat is being held. He gets a ride from a young Polish couple, who are innocent about what happened in their country a mere 50 years before. Clements (whose unused first name is "David") mixes with the other participants at lectures and workshops. (Mattheissen's descriptions of these events are written with a bit of a wry sense of humor.) He meets a young Catholic nun who he fancies himself attracted to. He argues with some other participants but only when he tries to find his mother - he has an old picture of her - do I get the sense that he awakens to his surroundings.

Peter Mattheissen has written a beautiful last book. His main character is a man at a loss, who may be helped by his participating in the retreat at Auschwitz. Or maybe he wasn't helped. The end of the book was a bit ambiguous; and maybe that's how life is.
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on 22 May 2014
The novel tells the story of a weekly pilgrimage, when in 1996, at Auschwitz 140 people gathered to meditate, pray and remember the victims of the concentration camp. Among those who are stationed in the barracks where they SS officers once lived are priests and children of Nazis, relatives of dead Jews and elderly camp survivors, researchers and scientists. One of the pilgrims is the protagonist, 55-year-old academician, American scientist Clements Olin studying poetry of victims of concentration camps and composing poetry collections. Although Olin has devoted much of his life to studying the Holocaust, he can not say he has any special knowledge. You can not be an expert on the subject, if you personally weren’t at a concentration camp as an inmate.

Olin convinces himself that he came to Auschwitz to gather material for a book, but this is only a formal reason. The protagonist himself is not sure who he is and what he wants from his pilgrimage. Not sure and the rest of group. Every day they are gathering to pray, inspect dilapidated buildings, railroad tracks, ovens and gas chambers, talk about themselves and their stories, which led to the retreat.

The participants discuss a variety of topics, from religion and patriotism to Jews and Nazism. Every day some new topic is raised that leads to bitter disputes and discussions, considering how different the audience gathered at the camp site is.

In Paradise is an uncomfortable novel. It’s uncomfortable for everyone, the reader, and the heroes of the novel. Holocaust requires sensitivity. Holocaust does not recognize the hypocrisy, but tearful and compassionate feelings are also irrelevant. When faced with such a monstrous crime against humanity, you are inevitably lost, so literally you can not understand who you are.

Olin’s personality is revealed in the novel not immediately: the first few chapters Matthiessen presents us the main character as an outsider, a stranger. The mystery of personality is one of the main themes of the book. Every pilgrim in the novel reveals oneself thus as he wants. Everyone has prepared beforehand the reason for his pilgrimage, but the reason is most often contrived. The pilgrims either do not know or do not want to know the true reason.

Discomfort is a basic feeling the book causes in the first half. Minor characters one after another raise important issues related to the war and the Holocaust, and these themes in any other society or any other place would never have been touched, they are so painful and uncomfortable. But at the ruins of Auschwitz pilgrims have nowhere to go, and they came to pay tribute to the victims, and to understand something that worries and haunts them. Reading a novel, you feel yourself like one of the pilgrims who hear other people's speeches, noting courage of ones and hypocrisy of others. And along with Olin you can only agree that without being a direct participant in the tragedy, you do not have the right to an opinion and can’t add anything new.

The first half is full of suspense and verbal sparring but as the second half of the novel begins, it is like a completely separate thing, much weaker than the first. Matthiessen is as if exhausted by the main theme and went on less significant ones. The protagonist suddenly switches from a concentration camp to love affairs, which puts reader in another awkward position. Matthiessen sort of moves the place of the death of millions of innocent people in the area of the love affairs. The hero rational core ( and author’s) is gone somewhere, rationality giving way to feelings.
But it is still possible to forgive the author: lone hero could still feel a craving to another person in such tragic place. Difficult to explain the change of course in the final third of the novel. The author reserves the Holocaust behind, switching on the theme of the Catholic Church. Suddenly priests, insider’s intrigies and topic of pedophilia come to the first row. This turn of events is at least strange.

The final Olin speech before pilgrims also could be questioned. The speech is too staged and puzzling. Olin again loses his rationality, muttering something about "Polish Jews." And though his origins Olin found only here in Poland, this can not be that in 50 years he never thought of his mother. Hard to imagine that such a reasonable man had no idea about his Jewishness, when everything pointed to this.

I’m again feeling uncomfortable: how good first half of the novel was, you’re at discomort to critisize it, but otherwise it is impossible. Verdict: read the first half, skip the second.
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