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In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen; Riverhead Books, 244 pages ($27.95). Peter Matthiessen knew this would be his final book. He died of leukemia eight days ago, mere hours before the scheduled publication of this novel, about which he was quoted as saying “it may be my last word.”

It wouldn’t exactly be seemly if there weren’t some true greatness to “the last word” of an 86-year-old writer who’d co-founded the Paris Review (he told Charlie Rose that his co-invention of the great literary magazine with George Plimpton and others was a “cover” for his activity as a CIA functionary at the time) and was a distant younger cousin of Harvard’s great literary historian F.O. Matthiessen (who led a gay academic life in the ’50s until he jumped out of a window to his death during the McCarthy years).

And so indeed there is some greatness here. Though he was well-known as a literary naturalist (“The Snow Leopard”) and as a novelist both tantalizing to moviemakers and demonically difficult to adapt at all well (see the film of “At Play in the Fields of the Lord”), his final book is an ambitious tale that tries to do nothing less than achieve some understanding of 20th century Europe’s defining event, the Holocaust.

Matthiessen was a practicing Zen Buddhist. In the ’90s, he began participating in Zen Buddhist retreats at Auschwitz. “As a non-Jewish American journalist, I felt unqualified” to write a nonfiction book about the subject. “But approaching it as fiction – as a novelist, an artist – I eventually decided that I did. Only fiction would allow me to probe from a variety of viewpoints the great strangeness of what I felt.”

Accordingly, his fictional hero is Clemens Olin, an American academic of Polish descent who flies “all night over the ocean from the New World, descending from moon stare and the rigid stars into the murk and tumult of inversion shrouding winter Poland.” He is one of more than 100 people who will eat and sleep and pray in the Nazi SS officers quarters of Auschwitz.

It was Adorno who said, all too quotably, that after Auschwitz poetry was “barbaric.” It seems Matthiessen’s final literary point that, however doomed, it is necessary.

– Jeff Simon