Peter Matthiessen passed away in April, just before his new title was set to publish. In Paradise might seem to be an odd, perhaps offensive, title for a book set in a concentration camp. But Matthiessen never aimed simply to shock. The author had attended a meditation retreat at Auschwitz in the 1990s. In the novel, as in real life, the participants joined hands and began to move around the camp mess hall in a circle, singing. They were “transcending the atmosphere of grief and banishing lamentation,” observed the author’s protagonist Clements Olin. The author himself admitted he was powerfully moved by the dancing. Matthiessen wanted to explore the Zen of the experience. He was himself a Zen roshi (master teacher) who gave classes at a meditation hall he established on the grounds of his home in Long Island.

Matthiessen never flinched from challenging his readers. His nonfiction, such as In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and National Book Award–winning The Snow Leopard, made a passionate case for preserving the world’s wild places and indigenous peoples; his novels, from Race Rock in 1954 to Shadow Country, another National Book Award winner, in 2008, explored extreme aspects of human experience.

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