IN PARADISE, by Peter Matthiessen. Riverhead, 256 pp., $27.95.
Toward the end of the late Peter Matthiessen's novel "In Paradise," Clement Olin, a 55-year-old American academic, takes one last look around the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he has been on a two-week retreat with a group of 140, including descendants of both perpetrators and survivors. He imagines the not-too-distant day when the land is reclaimed by commerce and time:
"The last barracks, the last guard post, all that barbed wire and broken brick, will be stripped off and scavenged ...the weather will transform the ash pits into lily ponds, and fresh meadows will be suitable once more for butterflies, wildflowers, children's voices, Sunday strolling, picnics, trysts.... Even its picturesque old name, Brzezinka, can only enhance the marketing potential of the grand development to follow. The Birches? River Meadows? And what will happen to its strange power?"
To capture that "strange power" was the last literary task undertaken by this three-time National Book Award winner who lived in Sagaponack. (Matthiessen died at 86 on April 5.) Based on the author's experiences leading Buddhist retreats at Auschwitz, the novel explores anti-Semitism, nationalism, the human capacity for evil and the role of art, mostly as debate topics among the characters. Olin's companions are a feisty group, including a profane provocateur named Earwig, a troubled nun, and a Swedish biologist, all gathered under the leadership of Ben Lama, "a genial, bearded, near-bald psychologist left over from the flower-power days of a psychedelic California youth."
To connect the philosophical questions and the crew of characters, Matthiessen weaves several skeins of plot. Olin is investigating the life and death of Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, a real figure who was interned there and committed suicide after his release. Olin has a personal quest, too, as his Protestant family emigrated from a town outside the camp. He hopes to find out what happened to his mother, who sent him to the United States but did not make it herself. There's a romantic thread involving Olin and the nun, and troubled back stories for several others.
Unfortunately, the plot proceeds somewhat mechanically, revealed through summary and contrived conversations. As a result, "In Paradise" is not fully realized as a novel. But it 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? The fiction's flaws are balanced by Matthiessen's courage and clarity in addressing this topic -- signal virtues of his career.