“In Paradise” Presents Hard Questions About Humanity & 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.

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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.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/09/book-biz-hard-questions-about-humanity-set-against-the-holocaust/)

“The Snow Leopard” Inspires and Enchants

In writer and naturalist Peter Matthiessen’s beloved nonfiction work The Snow Leopard, we’re transported to the far-away land of the Himalayas, as he joins biologist George Schaller on a quest to study the rare blue sheep of that region. Both Schaller and Matthiessen hope to catch a glance of the elusive and near-mythic snow leopard, as well, as it stalks and hides among the hills and valleys of this harsh terrain.

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The book traces, in detail, their journey and their struggles over a more than two-month period in late 1973 in this remote part of the world that, back then, was largely unknown and unexplored by Westerners. And while it indeed catalogues their trek through cold and ice and through high altitudes that left them breathless, this book is also much more than a pure travel or adventure story.

Matthiessen’s wife, the poet Deborah Love, had died just months earlier from cancer. As a couple, they’d begun a quest of their own into Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular. So, in addition to the physical nature of his journey through Nepal and the Tibetan region near China, Matthiessen was on a spiritual journey, as well, in this land of ancient Buddhist temples and practices. He left behind his 8-year old son to make this trip, where he hoped he might find some true understanding into impermanence and the ever-changing nature of reality.

Just as the actual hiking and camping for months in the desolate, high cold left Matthiessen exhausted and dirty, so too did his soul-searching. Though he was inspired by the many of the calm attitudes of the Sherpas and porters around him, all of whom came from that area, he nonetheless struggled with his own dark feelings of anger and frustration. It’s not easy to climb mountains, and it’s not easy to plumb the troubled depths of your heart, either. This book, which won the National Book Award (two actually!), beautifully bounces back and forth between these extremes, which is why it still resonates today.

Matthiessen, who died last year at age 86, was fascinating. The only writer ever to win the National Book Award for both fiction and nonfiction, he also started The Paris Review, in part as cover for his work spying for the C.I.A. in Paris in the early 1950s. He would go on to establish himself as an early conservationist and free thinker, turning out work that reflected this larger view of the world during his long career. If you’re new to him, The Snow Leopard is a good start.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/06/book-biz-this-classic-story-of-the-himalayas-endures/)