Peter Matthiessen (who died this April at the age of 86) possesses an extraordinary range of bona fides--co-founder of The Paris Review, world famous naturalist, explorer, author of myriad books and the only winner of both the National Book Award for Fiction and for Nonfiction--yet to my mind his greatest gift, and what makes In Paradise a masterpiece, is his finely tuned poet's ear, which he situates like Tolstoy on firm moral ground.
In the book., Clements Olin, an American academic of blurry Polish origins, joins a meditation group of "over one hundred guests of Poland." That is, rueful Poland. It is 1996--they are to meet at the site of Auschwitz. Among the guests is a German woman who, for the first time, is shocked at being snubbed for her nationality; a Palestinian who has traveled all the way from the Middle East to pay his respects to the dead of Auschwitz-Birkenau; a German called Rainer who startles the guests by his determination to say Kaddish at the Black Wall, which he uses to apologize for his being so German; a defrocked monk and, of course, hippies.
On his way to the former death camp, Olin's car breaks down. He is lost, cast out of Paradise, so to speak, but two young Poles, Wanda and Mirek, insist on giving him a lift to his destination. The couple--young, simpatico and typical of their age--know next to nothing about the Shoah. Ever the professor, Olin queries them as to their knowledge of prewar Oswiecim, a small, cheerful enclave with a significant Jewish population, near Auschwitz, that was famous for its hospitality. Olin continues: "Its name" may derive from a Yiddish word meaning "guests."
"Yittish.' Tasting the word, the girl [Wanda] gazes about her, lips parted. 'Near this Oshpitzin I am borned." By coincidence so was the initially bad-humored Olin. Earlier Olin had abruptly accused his young Polish drivers of historic ignorance, asking Mirek if he had not known about the thousands of Jews slaughtered by the Poles after the war was over. Then he reminds himself that these kids had done nothing bad to him, they were not the cause of this once beautiful historic town being turned into a place of no history; indeed, they had been kind in going over 30 miles out of their way to steer him to his destiny.
Olin repeatedly says he has only come to this retreat as part of his research for a biography of Tadeusz Borowski, the Auschwitz survivor who turned his camp experiences into the 1959 short-story collection This Way...