A few minutes from boarding for a long flight, my laptop battery is dead, so I'll need a book. There's something called a New York Times Bookstore, which sells souvenirs and snacks and phone chargers and $200 headphones and is studded with televisions on which Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declares to the US Congress, in tones worthy of Moses, that all negotiation is appeasement. ("It's a loop," the clerk explains.)
But they do have a few books, mostly those dreaded bestseller piles.
It's a common moment in my frequent-flyer life. The usual recourse is to seek a new-to-me book by a familiar name. There it is: between management gurus and Fifty Shades sequels, a book by Peter Matthiessen, celebrated travel writer, novelist, Zen practitioner, and by all accounts a beautiful human being, who passed away last year. It's called In Paradise.
Airports are made of impatience, so I want to know what I'm getting. Front cover: a railroad track dividing into three and vanishing into blue haze. "Poetic and scarifying," says the Washington Post on the cover, which tells me nothing. I flip to the back cover for the usual two paragraphs of semi-informative summary, only to be fixed in the author's gaze: Damon Winter's stunning photo of the elderly Matthiessen, filling the whole cover. He looks right at me as the great spiritual teachers often do: compassionate in our shared awareness that I have nowhere to hide.
No plot summary anywhere on the book. So I open the book to a random page and see the word "Auschwitz."
And here I think: I do not want to spend a four-hour flight at Auschwitz, but no worries. One of the world's greatest and wisest voyagers, Mathiessen might drop into Auschwitz somewhere in a book. But he wouldn't write a whole book set in Auschwitz. I trust Mathiessen on this. In an airport second, as Netanyahu's baritone scatters the appeasers back to their dark holes, I actually think these things.
I buy the book, settle on the plane. In Paradise is about a meditation retreat at Auschwitz. Except for a few scenes in Cracow at the beginning and end, we are all trapped there together. At my pace the book takes four hours, and explodes them into eternities.
Whence the title?
Christ crucified is importuned by a penitent thief, in agony on his own cross on that barren hillside. "I beseech you, Jesus, take me with you this day to Paradise!" In traditional gospels, Jesus responds, "Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise," but in older texts -- Eastern Orthodox or the Apocrypha, perhaps? -- Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, "No, friend, we are in Paradise right now." (132)
Twenty or so people have gathered at Auschwitz for a week in mid-winter, 51 years after the camp's liberation. (How few plots there are! This is the setup of countless mystery stories, comedies, and reality TV shows: a bunch of contrasting strangers stranded together in the creaking, storm-wracked hilltop mansion, or a tropical island.) There are five or six real characters, all unforgettable: a young German man whose life is consumed by his nation's guilt, a young Catholic novice just beginning to learn about the Church's role, a brittle but kindly female professor from Israel, an easy-going soft-voiced retreat leader who seems fresh of the plane from Esalen, and a mysterious angry knot of a man, Earwig, who is rude to everyone and yet is never thrown out. There's also a protagonist, of course.
The other participants are little herds of nationality, lurching together. There's a clutch of middle aged middle class Germans over here. Over there is a chorus of Israeli Jews studded with the requisite Palestinian, and over here are "the Poles," who seem to do everything in unison, though most of what we see them do is sit with their arms crossed, saying nothing.
Lodging in rooms where the SS once slept, eating simple meals reminiscent of what was served to the doomed, these people's days will be filled with tours, meditation sittings, and "bearing witness."
Meditation is the death of narrative, so we see it only from the outside: circles of figures cloaked against the cold, first in the main hall, then on the train platform, then in the half-ruined crematorium. The witnessing scenes, by contrast, are the abyss over which the the novel swings, lowering us slowly. With his charges seated in a circle, the Zen leader allows each to speak. He facilitates but does not suppress, calm as the trapped scream of their guilt or rage, lacerating one another. And in this space, all of it is true.
There is a plot: a protagonist, a love interest, an oppressive authority, an uncovering of truth, characters broken and others remade. But as the characters themselves keep noting, plot is an artifice here, if not an obscenity. I found myself irritated as the journey of a the Catholic novice Catherine, discovering her church's role in this place, went flat as she became a love interest, fleeing a masculine gaze. But all the plots go flat here. The book seems ready to devour itself.
No, I didn't want to spend four hours at Auschwitz, nor did any of these characters really want to spend a week, but they did and so did I, aware that even to breathe in this place, let alone form thoughts and feelings about it, can be called wrong, puny, disrespectful, pathetic. It can even be called appeasement, I think, imagining Netanyahu's stone-disapproving gaze.
I certainly didn't want someone as credible as Matthiessen to end his fifty-year career with the idea that tribalism is not something from which civilization will emerge, but rather the barest reality of what human beings are.
All this screaming and wailing, you call this a meditation retreat? But the end of meditation is not serenity. The end is truth, and this is Paradise.