In Paradise [NOOK Book]


The bestselling final novel by a writer of incomparable range, power, and achievement, a three-time winner of the National Book Award.
Peter Matthiessen was a literary legend, the author of more than thirty acclaimed books. In this, his final novel, he confronts the legacy of evil, and our unquenchable desire to wrest good from it.
One week in late autumn of ...
See more details below
In Paradise

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$11.99 price


The bestselling final novel by a writer of incomparable range, power, and achievement, a three-time winner of the National Book Award.
Peter Matthiessen was a literary legend, the author of more than thirty acclaimed books. In this, his final novel, he confronts the legacy of evil, and our unquenchable desire to wrest good from it.
One week in late autumn of 1996, a group gathers at the site of a former death camp. They offer prayer at the crematoria and meditate in all weathers on the selection platform. They eat and sleep in the sparse quarters of the Nazi officers who, half a century before, sent more than a million Jews in this camp to their deaths. Clements Olin has joined them, in order to complete his research on the strange suicide of a survivor. As the days pass, tensions both political and personal surface among the participants, stripping away any easy pretense to resolution or healing. Caught in the grip of emotions and impulses of bewildering intensity, Olin is forced to abandon his observer’s role and to bear witness, not only to his family’s ambiguous history but to his own.
Profoundly thought-provoking, In Paradise is a fitting coda to the luminous career of a writer who was “for all readers. He was for the world” (National Geographic).
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A Newsweek Best Book of 2014

Praise for Peter Matthiessen:

“You could well school yourself as a young American writer, in the early 21st century, by reading and then rereading the works of Peter Matthiessen. But of course he wasn't just a writer's writer; he was for all readers. He was for the world.” —National Geographic
“Matthiessen was unique in our literature, a descendant of Melville and Dostoyevsky who chronicled the heart of darkness at the center of the American fever dream. … The loss to American letters is immeasurable.” — LA Review of Books

Praise for In Paradise:

“Matthiessen’s descriptions are poetic and scarifying…he creates indelible vignettes about what remains and what took place here. Like the rest of Matthiessen’s vast body of work, “In Paradise” leads us into questions that define our most profound mysteries.” –The Washington Post
“The beauty of [In Paradise] comes in [Matthiessen’s] powerful descriptions. With his command of the language, he can add something new and profound to that vast library of Holocaust literature. In Paradise allows Peter Matthiessen to once again demonstrate that he remains one of our most powerful writers.”–The Miami Herald

“The conflict between the drama of the self and its surrender in the shadow of the Holocaust is Matthiessen's bold subject...powerful.” –New York Review of Books

“Peter Matthiessen's In Paradise is a deeply intelligent study of Holocaust remembrance…bleakly funny… [and] eloquent” –The Wall Street Journal

“A fitting coda to [Matthiessen’s] career… Where better to look for some sort of human essence than in a landscape that embodies us at our worst?...This is the key message of Matthiessen’s life and writing — that we are intricate, thorny, inconsistent, that the lines between good and bad blur within us, that we are capable of anything. The only choice is to remain conscious, to engage with openness.” –Los Angeles Times

“Written with a young man’s energy, In Paradise possesses an old man’s wisdom, which eschews the presumptions of age and the easy attainment of certitude." –The Daily Beast

In Paradise is a fitting final addition to Matthiessen's oeuvre, in that it combines moral seriousness and imagination grounded in the world with elegance of expression and a willingness to take risk.” – National Geographic
“[In Paradise] … provides rare insight into the dark magnetism of a brutal landmark. What drives a survivor to return? What inspires conflicted visitors to join hands in spontaneous dancing? Matthiessen’s courage and clarity in addressing this topic [were] signal virtues of his career.” –Newsday

“Underpinned by an ambitious, near audacious, storyline… Matthiessen proceeds to set out his fictional stall in deftly assured fashion….[He] combines tactical restraint with lucid, compelling yet almost conversational prose. He has an ability to render a character in a detail or two…All of this craft combines to make much of In Paradise read like a masterclass in fiction…stunning.” –The Irish Times

“Affecting and powerful… In Paradise gets at the heart of the defining tragic enigma of the 20th century… [a] complex and worthy adieu.” –Jane Smiley, The Guardian

“A moving valedictory for one of America’s most wide-ranging and poetical writers… Matthiessen’s novel embraces humanity’s endless capacity to heal and reinvent itself.” – Financial Times

In Paradise is…contemplative and moving, and in its haunting story of Holocaust survivors who revisit Auschwitz, we find one of the last century’s greatest authors penning a book worthy of his legacy.” –Grantland

“Matthiessen’s writing flexes the same kind of muscularity as others of his generation—Vonnegut, Styron, Doctorow—but his devotion to Zen Buddhism results in a spiritual journey that’s palatable even to the non-spiritual… [his characters] are fully realized people, and within them are the kernels of horror and joy shared by all of humanity” –A.V. Club

“Matthiessen can write with ecstatic beauty… In his new novel, In Paradise, he takes what may be his deepest look yet into the abyss…Profound and fiercely fresh.”–Tampa Bay Times

"An ambitious tale that tries to do nothing less than achieve some understanding of 20th century Europe’s defining event, the Holocaust.”–Buffalo News

“An eloquently written and thought-provoking novel… In Paradise demonstrates that Peter Matthiessen remained a vital part of America’s contemporary literary scene, an unflinching original who continued to write provocative narratives.” –Counterpunch

“Short and austere… Clements’ story and those of the others are anguished inquiries, harrowing reassessments and attempts — emotional, artistic and spiritual — to grasp the ungraspable.” –Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[In Paradise] deftly and ruthlessly pursues the battles that we face, both individually and also in dialogue with others, when we try to engage with horrors that can never be named.”–The Jewish Book Council

“An earnest, informed, often insightful and…subtle novel.” –Christian Science Monitor 

“Contains some of the most frightening and passionate writing of Matthiessen’s long career … With In Paradise, Peter Matthiessen has created philosophical and moral cacophony of lasting worth and, indeed, of a strange power. It belongs on the shelf beside At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Far Tortuga, and Shadow Country. Of how many books can that be said?”–Open Letters Monthly

“The two-time National Book Award–winner doesn’t shy away from boldly tackling the most profound of subjects… Matthiessen expertly raises the challenges and the difficulties inherent in addressing this subject matter, proving…that the creation of art “is the only path that might lead toward the apprehension of that ultimate evil . . . [that] the only way to understand such evil is to reimagine it.” –Booklist (starred review)

"Not a mere recounting but a persuasive meditation on Auschwitz’s history and mythology...Matthiessen uses scenes of confrontation, recollection, bitterness, and self-examination to trace aspects of culture that led to the Holocaust and that still reverberate today."
Library Journal (starred review)

"Matthiessen…ponders Auschwitz decades after the Holocaust, in a novel that’s philosophical, mordant and surprisingly romantic…An admirable…study of the meaning of survivorship." –Kirkus Reviews

Library Journal
★ 03/15/2014
Attending a multidenominational retreat at the site of the Auschwitz concentration and death camp in 1996, American scholar Clements Olin plans to research poet Tadeusz Borowski's connection to the camp while also rediscovering his own Polish gentile roots. A large group composed of many nationalities, including German gentiles, has gathered to bear witness, make personal statements, and explore other avenues for attempting to come to grips with the horrifying reality behind the dreary and forbidding ruin they see. As spiritual leader, Ben Lama gently guides and occasionally soothes members when accusations fly as Olin becomes attracted physically and emotionally to a young nun participating in the event. Away from the group, he explores the surrounding area and gradually learns unsettling truths about his family. Facts and uncertainties about the camp and the nature of the genocide are woven into the story, and the role of the Catholic Church during the war is also examined. VERDICT Not a mere recounting but a persuasive meditation on Auschwitz's history and mythology, this novel from three-time National Book Award winner Matthiessen uses scenes of confrontation, recollection, bitterness, and self-examination to trace aspects of culture that led to the Holocaust and that still reverberate today. [See Prepub Alert, 10/4/13.]—Jim Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Clements Olin is late getting to Auschwitz. In the winter of 1996 he has flown to Cracow from the United States, where he is a professor of Slavic literature, to join a group of 140 pilgrims from 12 nations who will spend a week in meditation and prayer at the death camp. But Olin misses the last train and has to get an evening ride with a young Polish couple. Though from the area, they are latecomers to the knowledge about Auschwitz and the adjacent Birkenau that Olin brings with him from his studies of the Holocaust. The next day Olin is also late for the first guided tour because he wanted to first feel the atmosphere of the camp alone. At fifty-five, he thinks to himself, he has always been alone, no mother, a suicide for a father, only briefly married, no children, and "the day grows late."

This late-life novel by Peter Matthiessen — who died at the age of eighty-six in 2014 — is permeated by what Harold Bloom called "belatedness," literal and literary. Olin is writing a book about Tadeusz Borowski, who survived Auschwitz to write This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen but killed himself at the age of twenty-eight. Olin also refers to others who wrote about the Holocaust—Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, Viktor Frankl, Czeslaw Miloscz.

Matthiessen participated in three of these group pilgrimages, the first in 1996, but put off writing about Auschwitz, he said, because he isn't Jewish. He found a way to do so, it seems, by making belatedness a subject of In Paradise. Almost everyone alive today missed the train to Auschwitz. Like the young Poles who give Olin a ride, Matthiessen implies, many contemporaries know little about the camps or hope to reduce the knowledge they do have. Some young Israeli characters in the novel want to let the Holocaust recede into the distant past. Several German characters come to Auschwitz for absolution so they, too, can be free. For Olin's roommate, a Swedish evolutionary biologist named Anders Stern, Auschwitz has no special character. It is just one of many occasions of mass murder in his study of the long history of mass murders.

In Paradise is initially like a primer for those who know only Schindler's List, to which a character condescendingly refers. Matthiessen describes the rail platforms, the buildings, and the objects left behind by the dead. His Germans, Poles, Israelis, and American Jews deliver conflicting responses to the scene and history. Old hatreds break out, familiar excuses bubble up. Clichés and sentimentalities abound. Survivors' memories vie with latecomers' imaginations. "Survivor guilt" is debated along with Middle Eastern politics. Olin says of Auschwitz, "I'm not qualified to write about it. I wouldn't know where to begin," but Matthiessen knows to start with basic facts and arguments some readers will know, although many will not.

The first third of In Paradise is a cacophony of voices, sometimes attached to the names of speakers, sometimes to their ethnic group, but rarely to a person who becomes a developed character. The rest of the book is more conventionally novelistic as Matthiessen presents the back stories and present desires of Olin, of an elderly Romanian-American Jew named Earwig, and a young Polish woman training to be a Franciscan nun. Olin's grandparents, members of a persecuted nobility, and their son Alexei fled the Nazis but left behind in the town of Oswiecim Alexei's girlfriend, then pregnant with Olin. He was smuggled to America as an infant, but his mother stayed on during the war and disappeared. One reason Olin has come to Poland is to find what happened to her. It's not much of a spoiler — because the story is predictable from early on — to reveal that he discovers she was Jewish and died at Auschwitz. So fifty years late, Olin knows who he is and why he should be at the camp.

Plausible by itself, Olin's story seems contrived after Matthiessen doubles it with the history of Earwig, who also discovers a secret from his past by coming to Auschwitz. Accidentally abandoned when very young by his Jewish parents, he doesn't know his name, is adopted by Gypsies, steals to survive the war, and has spent the last forty years searching for his family identity. David Clements Olinski became Clements Olin. Earwig invented his name, perhaps to fit his cynicism, which he inflicts on most of the other pilgrims. As a noun, "earwig" is an insect; as a verb, "earwig" means to fill the mind with prejudice through insinuations. Perhaps In Paradise has made me obsessed with belatedness, but Earwig's wartime wanderings war and his scabrous nihilism recall Jerzy Kosinski and his novel The Painted Bird.

If Olin is the chilly professor who learns to feel and Earwig the overheated autodidact who learns calm, the thirty-something novice evades easy summary and becomes the stimulus for the novel's late- blooming plot. Like the men, she has chosen her name: changing from Amalia to Catherine. A rebel in her convent, at Auschwitz she oscillates between defending her religion's role in the Nazi regime and recognizing the Catholic church's complicity in the Holocaust, between her vocation and her interest in Olin. Charmed by her ambivalences, Olin begins a flirtation or seduction that causes Catherine and him distress — and this reader some dismay.

It is hard to know why Matthiessen chose a romance in Hell to dominate the last third of In Paradise. Perhaps the infatuation is the hopeful reverse of "Et in Arcadia ego." Or maybe, given his title, the attraction recalls the sin that banished Adam and Eve from paradise and, for Christians, introduced evil into the world. And there's a third possibility. Earwig asks Olin, "You got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain't been written up yet in maybe ten thousand fucking books?" Matthiessen's "angle" may be his Zen Buddhism. The pilgrims' leader is a Buddhist psychologist nicknamed Ben Lama who tells the group. "We immerse ourselves and are transformed" by sitting still and meditating at Auschwitz. Ben Lama has both acute perceptions and serene detachment. He would seem to agree with an apocryphal text that has Christ on the cross saying, "We are in Paradise right now." For the enlightened, anywhere is paradise, the creation one. Though also a Buddhist, Olin fails to transcend attachment. Not satisfied with knowledge of his mother, he wants something more or someone to take with him from Auschwitz.

If I'm right in this reading, Matthiessen holds his protagonist to a very rigorous spiritual standard but one that seems an unusual, if not original, "angle" on Holocaust memory. Immersion, Ben Lama suggests, leads to true compassion for and identification with the victims, which should lead to surrender of the personal ego. Matthiessen dramatizes the effect of this surrender with an impromptu dance near the end of the pilgrims' stay. Not all join in, but those who do, including Olin and Catherine, feel a "nameless joy," a sense of communal transcendence — of paradise. I assume Matthiessen knew the origin of his title word is Persian for "walled enclosure." After Olin gets outside the walls of Auschwitz, his personal neediness reasserts itself. Perhaps Catherine will keep alive the paradisial experience, but we don't know her future within or outside the walls of the convent.

Although professor Olin is also a poet, Matthiessen gives him little verbal creativity, as if words themselves suffered from belatedness. Told through Olin's point of view in the third person, In Paradise is sharper in the tortured dialogues of the pilgrims than in its depiction of Olin's buttoned-down consciousness. He thinks in familiar metaphors — hell, ogres, ghosts — as if the banality of evil caused a banality of expression. Olin dislikes but cannot transform the sound of his own voice when he speaks to his fellow pilgrims:

Years before, half-listening to his car radio, he'd been assailed by a voice as aggravating as the pinpoint racket of the small hard-shelled insect that whirred its way one summer day into his inner ear.... What it was, in fact, was his own recorded voice, reciting his poetry. He hears that disembodied voice say now, as if speaking from afar, "You are mistaken, sir. I speak as a Polish Jew."
Even this dramatic statement is corrected by a woman who is much more a Pole and a Jew than Olin. Later "he is sick to death of words." Matthiessen's last words about Olin are "he sits motionless, broken- brained and wholly brokenhearted." As Buddhist and poet, Olin is a failure, but possibly an instructive one. Although making belatedness a theme is not ultimately a satisfying aesthetic solution to the condition, In Paradise is an earnest, informed, often insightful, and sometimes subtle novel, and I recommend it to anyone who feels guilty about their ignorance of the Holocaust.

Tom LeClair is the author of five novels, two critical books, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated periodicals. He can be reached at

Reviewer: Tom LeClair

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780698161764
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 52,437
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Peter Matthiessen was a three-time National Book Award winner (twice in two nonfiction categories for The Snow Leopard, published in 1978, and again in fiction in 2008 for Shadow Country)  and the author of more than thirty books, as well as a world renowned naturalist, explorer, and activist. A cofounder of the Paris Review,  he was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of its William Dean Howells Award, a State Author of New York, and a recipient of the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, among many other honors. A longtime student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen eventually became a priest of the White Plum Asanga. He lived for more than 60 years on the South Fork of Long Island, where he worked as a commercial fisherman in his twenties and died on April 5, 2014.    

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt



He has flown all night over the ocean from the New

World, descending from moon stare and the rigid stars into the murk and tumult of inversion shrouding winter Poland.

From the airport, a cab takes him to the city and sets him down in an empty square where a row of buses, closely parked, stand side by side facing a wall; the cab is gone by the time he discovers they are locked. (The imprisoned air inside, he thinks, must be even colder than this outside weather.) At the corner café he is informed that buses to that destination won’t be available before spring, and that he has missed the morning train he would have caught had he been driven to the depot; there will be no other until evening.

At a loss, he drinks black coffee at the counter, scowling at the unshaven traveler reflected in the dirty mirror. His antiquated Polish is eked out by the primitive English of a young couple who have overheard his inquiries about hiring a car and boisterously endorse the waiter’s protest that the cost would be far too high. Concerned that a visitor to their fair land has been inconvenienced, they offer to escort him to that small museum he had mentioned: the waiter will keep an eye on his old suitcase. On the way he can ad- mire the Royal Palace and cathedral on Wawel Hill and the St. Mary’s Basilica destroyed in the thirteenth century by Asian Tatars and rebuilt in the fourteenth with that strange crowned tower. “Like black icicles!” the girl cries. Thus their guest can at least enjoy the historic center of Poland’s oldest city, still so beautiful, they say, because Cracow, like Paris, had been spared bomb and fire in the war. Pardon? Oh no, sir, they giggle, they have never been to Paris!

Exhausted, he trails his merry guides past the medieval Cloth House on the Market Square. Mirek and his love- struck Wanda will not let him visit this city he knows more about than they do without dragging him into a shop to find a souvenir of Poland “for delight your sweetheart in America.” Wanda supervises the selection of a silken lozenge of transparent amber. “Beauty gift for Mama!” This golden drop encasing flecks of ancient insects is the very essence of his ancestral earth, yet its acquisition further sinks his spirits. He knows no one who would have much interest in this scrap of fossil tree sap, never mind “delight.” He has no sweetheart, only a married lover he does not much miss—in fact, is rather glad to get a rest from—and no surviving family in the New World. Were they still alive, his father and paternal grandparents would have disapproved this trip, having always warned him against returning to this region of southwest Poland just because he happened to be born there. “You have no memory of that place, and our own memories are sad,” his father said.

The one thing he will make sure he sees in Cracow is the Leonardo da Vinci portrait of a Renaissance girl holding a white winter weasel in her lap. Long ago, his father had shown him a faded reproduction clipped from an art magazine (“She reminds me so of your dear mother!”). Alas, on this cold Sunday of 1996, Young Woman with Ermine is locked away behind the small museum’s obdurate wood door. His guides stare at the notice as if hoping that at any moment it might change its mind. Disappointed for their guest and sensing his annoyance, the poor things are looking a bit desperate.

On the return, in an effort to intrigue them, he relates how over the centuries this portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Count Ludovico Sforza’s adolescent mistress, had wandered in times of war and conquest—sealed up in castle cellars, stolen, sold, and finally recovered, only to be confiscated by Hans Frank (crony and former lawyer of the Leader in Berlin, now Governor General of Occupied Poland) and displayed in his office in the Royal Palace—

“Is up there!” Eager to contribute, the girl is pointing at the fortress castle looming in the mist on its rock hill over the river. “We can visit!” shouts Mirek, eager, too. Damn it, can’t they see I’ve had it?

Inside, they are shown the empty office where the Leonardo—and perhaps also a Raphael, never recovered— might have illumined these drab walls, doubtless vaunted as trophies, spoils of war, by hausfrau Brigitte Frank, she who styled herself “a Queen of Poland” as fit title for so grand a personage as the new lady of the Royal Palace. And perhaps it was this Nazi queen (said to have been detested by her husband) who had seen to the theft of “the Cecilia” in early 1945, when this awful family fled the Red Army rumbling across Poland from the east and installed her in their chalet in Bavaria, from where, eventually, she would be rescued by Allied soldiers rumbling across Poland from the west.

“I have always been a student of that period,” he ex- plains, embarrassed by their awe of so much knowledge. But as they make their way outside again into the city, he tells his rapt young friends that rather wonderfully, the masterpiece—one of but four known Leonardo portraits of women, including the Mona Lisa and La Belle Ferronnière, both in the Louvre—turned up in Paris and was eventually restored, thank God, to Cracow. “Thanks God!” the lovers agree fervently, at the same time confessing prior ignorance of its existence and their amazement that a treasure so renowned might ever have been found anywhere in their battered land.

They head for the warmth of that café in Kasimierz, the old Jewish quarter named after King Kasimierz of the sixteenth century—a “Golden Age,” he mentions, of be- nevolence toward Jews, who were fleeing to Poland from pogroms and persecutions all over Europe. However, his companions, though they nod and smile, cannot come up with a response to all his information, which he’d hoped might stoke a faltering conversation. He tries to mend his pedantic tone but soon falls back on his research for want of a better antidote to their blithe ignorance, instructing them that in former times, their city was a cultural center of this country’s Jewish population. After September 1939, when southwest Poland was seized by the Third Reich, the Jews were driven from their houses into a ghetto over near the river, permitting Obergruppenführer Frank to boast that Cracow was the first Juden-frei city in the Occupied Territory.

The girl looks at her companion. Juden-frei? What can he be telling us?

“But of course you know your own history much better than some foreigner who has never been here.”

They share his rueful smile. “Not even to Cracow?” the girl entreats him, hand circling to summon up its fabled spell. “But you are speak okay Polish,” Mirek says, urging their guest to tell them more about this “Juden-frei”: how amusing that in all their lives they have never met a single Jew, not one!

He watches them chortle at the idea of knowing Jews. “I suppose that’s not so strange, under the circumstances,” he says. “Very few survived the war and scarcely any have returned even today. Small wonder.”

“Is small wonder!” Mirek agrees fervently. “Is small wonder!” the girl says. Uneasy, the lovers peer about them for some trace of missing Jews as if these buildings dark with centuries of soot were rife with Hebrew secrets.

In coal fog and December rain, the thousand-year-old city lies steeped in his own weariness and melancholy. He

has no wish to visit the Old Synagogue, built in the Renaissance. Thank you, he says, but he is too tired from his night of travel. “Okay, no problem,” Mirek laughs. “Tired is natural.” And Wanda smiles, “Okay, tired is natural, no problem exactly.” The lovers hug in celebration of their juicy life (and perhaps also to warm themselves: Mirek wears only a thin white turtleneck under his light leather-type jacket and Wanda a denim jacket with over-bold white stitching and an orange faux-fox collar).

So delighted are these lovers with their rare opportunity to practice English that they offer to drive their captive stranger all the way to his destination “just for the fun.” Don’t be silly, he protests, it is much too far, they will have to return on icy roads in the winter dark— “No, no, sir, please, sir, you are the guest of Poland!” If he insists, the guest of Poland can help pay the petrol, is okay? “Yes, it is okay exactly,” the girl laughs. Anyway her parents live in a nearby town and maybe her boyfriend can stay over, too, if Papa will permit.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide


In the winter of 1996, more than a hundred women and men of diverse nationality, background, and belief gather at the site of a former concentration camp for an unprecedented purpose: a weeklong retreat during which they will offer prayer and witness at the crematoria and meditate in all weathers on the selection platform, while eating and sleeping in the quarters of the Nazi officers who, half a century before, sent more than a million Jews to their deaths. Clements Olin, an American academic of Polish descent, has come along, ostensibly to complete research on the death of a survivor, even as he questions what a non-Jew can contribute to the understanding of so monstrous a catastrophe. As the days pass, tensions, both political and personal, surface among the participants, stripping away any easy pretense to healing or closure. Finding himself in the grip of emotions and impulses of bewildering intensity, Olin is forced to abandon his observer’s role and to embrace a history his family has long suppressed—and with it the yearnings and contradictions of being fully alive.


Peter Matthiessen was a three-time National Book Award winner (twice in two nonfiction categories for The Snow Leopard, published in 1978, and again in fiction in 2008 for Shadow Country)  and the author of more than thirty books, as well as a world renowned naturalist, explorer, and activist. A cofounder of the Paris Review,  he was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of its William Dean Howells Award, a State Author of New York, and a recipient of the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, among many other honors. A longtime student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen eventually became a priest of the White Plum Asanga. He lived for more than 60 years on the South Fork of Long Island, where he worked as a commercial fisherman in his twenties and died on April 5, 2014.


  1. Soon after arriving at Auschwitz, Olin wonders if it’s even possible to “bear witness” to the Holocaust, especially given the number of years that have passed in the interim and how few survivors remain from that time. “Their mission here, however well-intended, is little more than a wave of parting to a ghostly horror withdrawing into myth,” he says. What do you think? Is it still possible to bear witness to the Holocaust? If yes, what does that witness look like to you? If not, why not?
  2. Peter Matthiessen was a lifelong naturalist who wrote prolifically about the “wild places” of the world—about far-flung landscapes and people who “lived on the edge of life.” Do you see elements of the natural or the wild in In Paradise? Where?
  3. A distinct thread of dark humor wends its way through In Paradise, emerging in Earwig’s provocations, Olin’s musings, and the interactions of the disparate groups on the retreat. What purpose can humor serve in a work like this?
  4. Olin, when reflecting on the seminal Holocaust works of Levi and Borowski, muses that even the victims weren’t truly innocent in the death camps—that everyone was complicit, except for the children. He echoes Viktor Frankl’s infamous line, “We who have come back, we know. The best of us did not return.” As members of the same race, Olin insists, we all share culpability. What do you think?
  5. The epigraph that opens In Paradise is quoted again during the scene of “the dancing.” How do you interpret Akhmatova’spoem? What is that “something not known . . . but wild in our breast for centuries”? How does it relate to the dance? To In Paradise as a whole?
  6. On the surface, Olin and Earwig seem to be diametrically opposed. Do you see any parallels between their characters, in what they are searching for, or how they make sense of their personal histories? What does In Paradise have to say about questions of home and longing and identity?
  7. What do you think Ben Lama means when he says, “In this place, we are all struggling with our dark angels?”
  8. Olin, after reading Sister Catherine’s diary, recites the parable from the Gospel of Luke about Christ and the penitent thief crucified alongside him, in which the thief begs to be taken to Paradise, and Christ responds, “No, friend, we are in Paradise right now.” Why do you think Matthiessen drew the title of his book from this story?
  9. A longtime student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen participated in three witness-bearing retreats at Auschwitz in the later years of his life and had long wanted to write about what he experienced there. But as “a non-Jewish American journalist” he felt he had “no right to do so” as nonfiction. Who do you feel has agency when it comes to telling the stories of genocide? Does this differ from the telling of other truths? Should this be true?
  10. One of the major themes of In Paradise is love—sacred love, but also erotic love, and, as with Olin’s feelings for Sister Catherine, the connection between the two. How did you perceive their relationship? Why?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 6 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2014

    Recommended for contemplative reading

    Smoothly written account of an American visiting Auschwitz with a meditative group, emphasizing the motivation of or effect on the many characters. A gentle addition to the holocaust genre.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 13, 2014

    Makes you think AND feel.

    I loved this book. I am a fan of the author and was excited to hear of a new release. The premise of a retreat at a concentration camp is a little bizaare...but genius. The feelings exhibited throughout the book are deep and genuine. Many times I think I would feel the same. To bring together a wide variety of characteristics in such place was brillantly done.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2014

    Would have been a good book if I could read it on my reader.

    I could not get this book to print on my 1st generation Nook e-Reader, could not access beyond page 7. Publisher said they would correct the problem, but it has not occurred .

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2015

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)