Authors: Peter Matthiessen
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2014 by Peter Matthiessen
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
In paradise : a novel / Peter Matthiessen.
1. Teachers—Fiction. 2. Jewish women—Fiction. 3. Family secrets—Fiction. 4. Domestic fiction. I. Title
PS3563.A858416 2014 2013046176
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold.
Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?
By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.
And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined dirty houses—
something not known to anyone at all
But wild in our breast for centuries.
—Anna Akhmatova, 1921
e told him this: how as a boy fugitive on a scorched day of wartime, crossing the railroad yards of some defeated city, he is drawn closer by a twitching in the shadow under the last boxcar in a transport shunted off onto a siding. The boxcar is silent. He is barely able to make out the tentacle like a thin tongue that emerges through a crack in the wood floor and inches down in search of something on the rail bed. Withdrawn quickly, it disappears up through a crack, only to reappear a moment later, descending slowly, slowly, then swiftly up and slowly down again and then again, until with a loud
of jolted iron, the car jumps forward and the thing falls or is dropped and left behind. And as the transport moves out of the yard, he sees an old belt coiled in a puddle between rails, its buckle glinting in the sunlight like the head of a wet snake.
e has flown 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.
From the airport, a cab takes him to the city and sets him down in an empty square where a row of buses, closely parked, face a cracked wall; the cab is gone by the time he discovers they are locked. (The imprisoned air inside, he thinks, must be even colder than this outside weather.) At the corner café he is informed that buses to his destination won’t be available before spring, and that he has missed the morning train he would have caught had he been driven to the depot; there will be no other until evening.
At a loss, he drinks black coffee at the counter, scowling at the unshaven traveler reflected in the dirty mirror. His antiquated Polish is eked out by the primitive English of a young couple who have overheard his inquiries about hiring a car and boisterously endorse the waiter’s protest that the cost would be far too high. Concerned that a visitor to their fair land has been inconvenienced, they offer to escort him to the small museum he had mentioned: the waiter will keep an eye on his old suitcase. On the way he can admire the Royal Palace and cathedral on Wawel Hill and the St. Mary’s Basilica destroyed in the thirteenth century by Asian Tatars and rebuilt in the fourteenth with that strange crowned tower. “Like black icicles!” the girl cries. Thus their guest can at least enjoy the historic center of Poland’s oldest city, still so beautiful, they say, because Cracow, like Paris, had been spared bomb and fire in the war. Pardon? Oh no, sir, they giggle, they have never been to Paris!
Exhausted, he trails his merry guides past the medieval Cloth House on the Market Square. Mirek and his love-struck Wanda will not let him visit this city he knows more about than they do without dragging him into a shop to find a souvenir of Poland. Wanda supervises the selection of a silken lozenge of transparent amber. “For delight your sweetheart in America? Beauty gift for Mama?” This golden drop encasing flecks of ancient insects is the very essence of his native earth, yet its acquisition further sinks his spirits. He knows no one who would have much interest in this scrap of fossil tree sap, never mind “delight.” He has no sweetheart, only a married lover he does not much miss—in fact, is rather glad to get a rest from—and no surviving family in the New World. Were they still alive, his father and paternal grandparents would have disapproved this trip, having always warned him against returning to this region of southwest Poland just because he happened to be born there. “You have no memory of that place, and our own memories are sad,” his father said.
HE ONE THING
he will make sure he sees in Cracow is the Leonardo da Vinci portrait of a Renaissance girl holding a white winter weasel in her lap. Long ago, his father had shown him a faded reproduction clipped from an art magazine (“She reminds me so of your dear mother!”). Alas, on this cold Sunday of 1996,
Young Woman with Ermine
is locked away behind an obdurate wood door. His guides stare at the notice as if hoping that at any moment it might change its mind. Disappointed for their guest and sensing his annoyance, the poor things are looking a bit desperate.
On the return, in an effort to intrigue them, he relates how over the centuries this portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Count Ludovico Sforza’s adolescent mistress, had wandered in times of war and conquest—sealed up in castle cellars, stolen, sold, and finally recovered, only to be confiscated by Hans Frank, now Governor General of Occupied Poland, and displayed in his office in the Royal Palace—
“Is up there!” Eager to contribute, the girl is pointing at the fortress castle looming in the mist on its rock hill over the river. “We can visit!” shouts Mirek, eager, too.
Inside, they are shown the empty office where the Leonardo—and perhaps also a Raphael, never recovered—might have illumined these drab walls, doubtless vaunted as trophies, spoils of war, by
Brigitte Frank, she who styled herself “a Queen of Poland” as fit title for so grand a personage as the new lady of the Royal Palace. And perhaps it was this Nazi queen (said to have been detested by her husband) who had seen to the theft of “the Cecilia” in early 1945, when this awful family fled the Red Army rumbling across Poland from the east and installed her in their chalet in Bavaria, from where, eventually, she would be rescued by Allied soldiers rumbling across Poland from the west.
“I have always been a student of that period,” he explains, embarrassed by their awe of so much knowledge. But as they make their way outside again into the city, he tells his rapt young friends that rather wonderfully, the masterpiece—one of but four known Leonardo portraits of women, including the
La Belle Ferronnière
, both in the Louvre—turned up in Paris and was eventually restored, thank God, to Cracow. “Thanks God!” the lovers agree fervently, at the same time confessing prior ignorance of its existence and also their amazement that a treasure so renowned might ever have been found anywhere in their battered land.
HEY HEAD FOR
the warmth of that café in Kasimierz, the old Jewish quarter named after King Kasimierz of the sixteenth century—a “Golden Age,” he mentions, of benevolence toward Jews, who were fleeing to Poland from pogroms and persecutions all over Europe. However, his companions, though they nod and smile, cannot come up with any comment on all his information, which he’d hoped might stoke a faltering conversation. He tries to mend his pedantic tone but soon falls back on his research for want of a better antidote to their blithe ignorance, instructing them that in former times, their city was a cultural center of this country’s Jewish population. After September 1939, when southwest Poland was seized by the Third Reich, the Jews were driven from their houses into a ghetto over near the river, permitting Obergruppenführer Frank to boast that Cracow was the first
city in the Occupied Territory.
The girl looks at her companion.
Judenfrei? What can he be telling us?
“But of course you know your own history much better than some foreigner who has never been here.”
“Not even to Cracow?” the girl entreats him, hand circling to summon up its fabled spell. “But you are speak okay Polish,” Mirek says, urging their guest to tell them more about this “
”: how amusing that in all their lives they have never met a single Jew, not one!
He watches them chortle at the idea of knowing Jews. “I suppose that’s not so strange, under the circumstances,” he says. “Very few survived the war and scarcely any have returned even today. Small wonder.”
“Is small wonder!” Mirek agrees fervently. “Is small wonder!” the girl says. Uneasy, the lovers peer about them for some trace of missing Jews as if these buildings dark with centuries of soot were rife with Hebrew secrets.
N COAL FOG
and December rain, the thousand-year-old city lies steeped in his own weariness and melancholy. He has no wish to visit the Old Synagogue, built in the Renaissance. Thank you, he says, but he is too tired from his night of travel. “Okay, no problem,” Mirek laughs. “Tired is natural.” And Wanda smiles, “Okay, tired is natural, no problem exactly.” The lovers hug in celebration of their juicy life (and perhaps also to warm themselves: Mirek wears only a thin white turtleneck under his light leather-type jacket and Wanda a denim jacket with overbold white stitching and an orange faux-fox collar).
So delighted are these lovers with their rare opportunity to practice English that they offer to drive their captive stranger all the way to his destination “just for the fun.” Don’t be silly, he protests, it is much too far, they will have to return on icy roads in the winter dark— “No, no, sir, please, sir, you are the guest of Poland!” If he insists, the guest of Poland can help pay the petrol, is okay? “Yes, it is okay exactly,” the girl laughs. Anyway, her parents live in a nearby town and maybe her boyfriend can stay over, too, if Papa will permit.
he retrieves his suitcase while Mirek goes off to fetch the car and Wanda runs to the shop next door and buys him a souvenir postcard of
Woman with Ermine
. On her return, to her squeaked delight, he pulls out her chair and seats her, ordering hot cocoa and sweet biscuits, whereupon she presents the postcard: “Your Cecilia, sir! Is more pretty than what I am?” Wanda is attractive in her gamine way and has sensed that the visitor may think so. She flirts gaily, intrigued by his Old World manners, he suspects, and his decent clothes. But being unsophisticated, she becomes alarmed when, to amuse himself, he captures her gaze and challenges her coquetry by leaning forward to appraise her face while holding up the postcard for comparison. For sure, she cries, as her eyes seek escape, for sure the gentleman will come visit his Cecilia on his way back through Cracow? She fishes in her red shiny purse for nothing whatsoever while he sits back to summon the waiter (at one time a resident of Queens, New York, and in consequence an authority on the U.S.A.) and orders “Mademoiselle” another chocolate to replace the one which in her nervousness she has mostly spilled onto the round marble top of their café table.
“They say Cracow have more synagogue than Jew,” Mirek laughs, returning. The joke is far too knowing from the mouth of a young man born long after the war: surely he has overheard it, picked it up, a worn coin off the sidewalk. Turning up his nose at the boy’s joke as he sets down Wanda’s chocolate, the waiter says that most of this city’s old wood synagogues had burned down, and the world-famous Old Synagogue of the Renaissance is mainly visited by tour groups from Israel and the United States.
“Tours group exactly!” Relieved that Mirek has returned, the girl burbles happily that this old quarter has really come to life as a tourist attraction, with lively “Jew music” in the Klesmer-Hois and the Ariel café. Doubtless, the stranger says, the few Jews who returned after the war enjoy “Jew music.” Though his tone is mild, its edge brings a small wrinkle to that alabaster brow.
Could their guest be a bit sensitive about those Jews?