I’ve read about individuals who attend retreats at Auschwitz and spend a week meditating and “bearing witness” to the atrocities that happened there. I have always wanted to attend – as a student of History and as a human being who struggles, as we all do, with how mankind can behave in a manner in which I can’t even put in words. My coworker knows of my desire to attend one of these retreats and recommend Matthieson’s book to me and I’m so glad she did.
A work set in Auschwitz during the 1990s whose main character, Clements Olin, comes to the retreat to see if he can discover anything about the woman who was his mother. Everyone who attends this gathering to “bear witness” is spiritually stripped bare during the novel and taken to task for sentimentality, lies and sloppy thinking, including: American Jews, Israeli Jews, Poles, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Auschwitz survivors and, not least, Zen adherents such as Clements Olin himself. The very term “bear witness” is taken to task as hypocrisy and sentimentalism, mainly by the character known through most of the book as Earwig. Every participant is flawed. There is an entire chapter entitled “Dancing at Auschwitz” concerning a dance held by some of the participants in the “bear witness” gathering. The repercussions and recriminations that follow this “dance” may throw many off – never mind the contents.
This novel leaves this reader shaken and impressed. Yes, Olin himself reminds us that many have felt that there is an impropriety, an inauthenticity, even an outright dishonesty in writing about the Holocaust by anyone who did not experience and survive it. From that perspective, all others should be silent. But Matthiessen makes a powerful case for the honest effort to confront that history. Certainly this is a novel worth reading, and more than once.
As a side note this wonderful author passed away from cancer three days before the book was published.