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In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen, Oneworld, RRP£12.99/Riverhead, RRP$27.95, 224 pages

Peter Matthiessen’s final novel, In Paradise, is a moving valedictory for one of America’s most wide-ranging and poetical writers. The only author to have won the National Book Award for both fiction (Shadow Country in 2008) and non-fiction (The Snow Leopard in 1979), Matthiessen, who died last month at the age of 86, had an avowed preference for writing novels.

His fiction reveals the brutal and often bloody underside of some of the world’s most breathtaking and exotic territories: genocide in the Brazilian rainforest; reprobate turtle fishermen in the Caribbean; and a murderous owner of a sugar cane plantation in Florida.

In terms of locale and theme, Matthiessen’s final novel could not be more of a departure. In Paradise, set in December 1996 during a freezing week-long ecumenical retreat at Auschwitz, raises questions about whether it is possible to arrive at a form of communion and forgiveness in one of the most haunted and ill-fated places on earth.

The protagonist, 55-year-old Clements Olin, a Polish-born American poet and scholar researching a monograph of Auschwitz survivor and author Tadeusz Borowski, is the latest in a prickly line of Matthiessen anti-heroes who don’t quite fit in and who are unsure why – until the fateful moment they are ultimately revealed to themselves. Ostensibly Olin is there for research; covertly it is also an opportunity for him to revisit the nearby town where he was born and discover what happened to the mother he never knew.

The opening sequence is particularly compelling. Olin arrives in Krakow late at night only to discover that there are no buses to Auschwitz until the following spring. He hitches a lift with a young Polish couple whose youthful energy and distinct lack of interest in the Holocaust unnerve the rather stuffy visitor. “They had been kind to lug him thirty miles on a winter road to this cloaca maxima, and he had repaid them with pedantic hectoring and pried at them with irritable meanness … ”

Matthiessen stresses Olin’s sense of helpless rage in the face of history’s terrible dead weight. He is a man of many foibles – most apparent in his clumsy courtship of a young novitiate, Sister Catherine, who is attending the retreat as a penance for her outspoken views on women priests. She, like 140 other pilgrims from 12 different countries, has committed herself to a week of homage, prayer and silent meditation.

Matthiessen provides us with a vivid picture of these visitors, and soon the air becomes fraught with provocation and recrimination. An Israeli historian causes outrage when she suggests that Judaism, and “its centuries of struggle to survive without losing its spiritual integrity”, is partly responsible for its own “martyrdom”; the German visitors and a Palestinian become easy targets for the other visitors; and the Poles are condemned for their abject lack of soul searching.

In Paradise is not a novel that yields itself to the reader easily – the prose is often angular and aggressive. There are chilling moments such as when Olin walks across a meadow near Auschwitz-Birkenau believed to have been the site of a mass grave. “Is it only his imagination that under these heavy grasses glazed with ice the ground is soft, unstable, that it quakes in a sickening way beneath his boots like a great grass jelly?”

Ultimately Matthiessen’s novel embraces humanity’s endless capacity to heal and reinvent itself. The moment of transformation arrives when, after several days of bitter infighting, the pilgrims spontaneously join hands and perform an Auschwitz dance – a sort of “lugubrious danse macabre of the middle ages” – to the strains of a Hebrew prayer song. “What could there be to celebrate in such a place?” wonders Olin. “Who cares? He is delighted to be caught up in it.” Matthiessen’s hypnotic final novel induced a similarly thankful reaction in this reader.

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