Sunday, July 13, 2014

In Paradise?

Peter Matthiessen's final novel, "In Paradise," was released to the public only a few days after his death from leukemia at the age of 86. I remember listening to him read his work, along with several other poets and writers, at an outdoor courtyard, under a full moon, on the fledgling Florida Gulf Coast University campus, many years ago. The experience was powerful and I'd promised myself at the time to read his famous Florida trilogy about the notorious Mr. Watson. Still haven't taken up that daunting task, but I aim to.

Less intimidating in size, yet no less daunting in subject matter, "In Paradise" opened a massive can of worms for me, bringing about these musings on what exactly constitutes a holocaust versus a genocide and why we humans feel we have to compete for the label of most wronged. I'll come back to that.

Clements Olin, a Polish American professor ostensibly researching a particular aspect of the Holocaust, but actually searching for the identity of his mother, joins a hundred other international visitors, who have come to Auschwitz to bear witness to the deaths of six million people.

But what would seem to be a worthy endeavor, and one that I wanted to take myself but was denied by my German hosts at the time, devolves into a bizarre blame game, one pilgrim turning on another in a disgusting show of one-upmanship. Various attendees take to the stage to share their stories, kind of like an AA meeting, but rather than be embraced, they are scorned for not having suffered enough, for not having a "good enough" reason for being at that death camp memorial.

The Catholic church and its representatives come in for especially scathing attention and Matthiessen, through Professor Olin, has plenty to say about education today and what's not being taught. This is not a novel one reads for pleasure but it is certainly thought provoking, bringing to mind the news about the never ending war between Israel and Palestine that greets me every morning when I open the paper. I become incensed when I read of the innocents who are being killed each day by the tit for tat mentality of the two leaders who seem incapable of breaking with the "eye for an eye" form of justice.

Professor Olin, at one point in the book, addresses the pilgrims at Auschwitz, Poles, Germans, Americans, Swedes, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish, by saying, "All nations...and all religions, cultures, and societies throughout history have perpetrated massacres, large and small: man has been a murderer forever."

One needn't look far to prove this out. In our own country, according to David Stannard in his controversial book, "American Holocaust," between 10 and 114 million native peoples were systematically murdered or died from diseases brought over by European settlers. Does their suffering diminish others?

The PBS documentary "Africans in America" teaches us that over 20 million Africans were kidnapped from their land, enslaved, and bound on ships that traversed the middle passage for the Americas. More than half of these human beings died on route. A holocaust? I would say yes. But don't dare say the "r" word, as in reparations. That will stop a conversation dead in its tracks.

Man's inhumanity to man continues apace. How do we stop senseless suffering around the world? How do we atone to groups of people who have suffered and died because of their genetic makeup? I don't believe there will ever be answers to these questions, but writers will continue to ask them and, I hope, we will continue to read and ponder. Awareness is a beginning.

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