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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The novelist Peter Matthiessen died this past weekend just days before his book "In Paradise" was published. In his 80s and suffering from cancer, he predicted the book might be his last word. Mattheissen had a long and distinguished career, the only writer to ever win the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction. In his final novel, Mattheissen takes us back to 1996 to a weeklong conference at Auschwitz. Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Here, in this foreboding setting, as autumn shifts toward winter, Jews and Germans, Poles and Americans, rabbis, Buddhists, Catholic priests and European nuns and slightly crazed survivors of Nazi genocide stand witness to the atrocities of some of the greatest demons of history.

Matthiessen deftly deploys a Polish-American academic named Clements Olin as his main character, Olin guiding the reader among the various points of view, some more hysterical than others. At first, he would appear to be among the least involved of those participants who have come here to bear witness. The term itself strikes his ear, he says, as anachronistic and over-earnest.

Witness to what, exactly? The emptiness? Silence? As it happens, Olin has deep family ties to the town near the camp, the place where, as one woman from the conference murmurs, a faint odor of burning flesh still lingers here a half century later. And when he comes upon the camp's crematorium, he suffers a vision and nearly breaks down, seeing the executioners overhead peeping filthily as demons. Demons.

And Olin's growing impulse to get closer to an appealing young Polish nun named Catherine who's hand he takes as the group, toward the end of its stay, moves around the dining hall in a celebratory dance. Even as he dances, Olin has serious questions. What could there be to celebrate in such a place? Who cares? He is delighted to be caught up in it.

Clasping the precious hand behind, he just keeps moving, as does the novel, moving the characters toward the end of their gathering, and at least for Olin, possibly towards some kind of self-understanding. Even the title of this challenging and mournfully beautiful book returns to haunt us. Paradise? Where? How? In such a place as this? The answer comes back as if in some Buddhist conundrum. Yes, here, now, demons and all.

BLOCK: The book is "In Paradise" by the late Peter Matthiessen. He died on Saturday at the age of 86. Our reviewer is Alan Cheuse. His latest book is "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories."

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