‘The Ultimate Koan’

In Paradise

by Peter Matthiessen
Riverhead, 246 pp., $27.95
Maria von Matthiessen/Peter Matthiessen
Peter Matthiessen, Sagaponack, New York, circa late 1990s

In 1991 I agreed to translate from the Italian a book called There Is a Place on Earth: A Woman in Birkenau, by Giuliana Tedeschi. It began:

There is a place on earth that is a vast desolate wilderness, a place populated by shadows of the dead in their multitudes, a place where the living are dead, where only death, hate and pain exist.

Giving almost no personal biography, no political history, no statistics, in short, no relief, Tedeschi recounts her own ten months in Birkenau from day one to liberation, focusing on the devastating labor routines, the endless humiliations, the dread of “selection,” the mutual hatred between members of different national, ethnic, and religious groups, and the daily degradation of body and psyche, particularly the female body and psyche.

Having taken on the translation as an ordinary work project, I soon found it impossible to put in the hours I normally would. How can one concentrate on style and grammatical nicety when telling such things? I recall an anecdote in which a group of young women is ordered to go to the gas chambers; naturally they imagine that this is the end. On arrival, however, each is given a baby carriage to push a few hundred yards from the gas chambers to a recycling dump. As their hands make familiar contact with the baby carriage handles, Tedeschi reflects that the emaciated, desexualized bodies of herself and her companions, most in their late teens and early twenties, will now never be able to bear children, nor is she likely to see her own two children again. As for the babies whose carriages these were, their fate is obvious.

Reduced to tears, I decided that this would be the last Holocaust book I would translate and perhaps the last I would read. Receiving the galleys of In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen, who I know as an excellent nature writer and author of the National Book Award–winning Shadow Country (2008), a novel set in Florida in the early years of the twentieth century, I simply dived straight in. I had no idea a book with such a title would be taking me to Auschwitz.

Not that this is really the first book on the Holocaust I’ve read since Tedeschi’s memoir. The 1990s saw an increasing number of novelists, many with no experience of the period or the place, publishing “Holocaust novels.” At present, the website Goodreads has a list of more than seventy “Best Holocaust Novels.” While the desire of survivors to tell, in memoir or fiction, what they went through makes perfect sense, I have always been a little perplexed by these other narratives. Is a salutary remembering, as defense against repetition, really what they are about? How does the enjoyment we associate with fiction, our pleasure in…

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