A MEAL IN WINTER by Hubert Mingarelli

This small book set me on a journey of discovery. I’d not heard of the author until I listened to the book being discussed on Radio 4’s A Good Read. The program is a rich source of reading suggestions and often encourages me to delve further into less commercial areas of literature. I was fascinated by the debate about this book and immediately added it to my wish list.

It is a small book (a ‘novella’ perhaps) and as such is a quick read. What it lacks in thickness is more than made up for by its depth. It challenged me to pause and consider again just how war plays out for those in the middle of it. The story is set in the depths of a Polish winter during World War II. We see a brief snapshot of the war for three German soldiers. The book’s narrator is one of the three and he delivers an almost monotone account despite the most awful circumstances surrounding their roles in Poland.

The three are desperate to avoid the “work” which is carried out at the German base. This work, it turns out is the most horrific imaginable, acting as executioners to the Jews who have been captured and brought back. They convince a commanding officer to instead use them to go out into the freezing wilderness to find Jews and bring them back to base. To their inevitable fate. It is chilling. And breathtakingly awful.

The whole story is made so much more grizzly by the matter of fact way the Germans talk about their roles. This is a translation from Mingarelli’s native French (Un Repas En Hiver) by Sam Taylor. Sadly I don’t read in any other language than my own native tongue, because I’d be intrigued to know if the sparsity felt the same in French. For me the tone conveys a numbing and a weariness in the soldiers. They had been part of a gruesome Europe wide crusade and the sheer magnitude of The Holocaust seems to have sanitised their minds to the task. Their humanity remains only tenuously intact, although they aren’t portrayed as out-and-out monsters.

The Jew they capture is hiding out alone, cold, hungry and filthy. The three soldiers find he offers no resistance as they begin their freezing journey back to base. On the way, they hole up in a derelict cottage. They need shelter and warmth as the night approaches. They are spooked by a local Polish man who mysteriously joins them. The animosities are large in the small building, but the Germans nervously accept his presence.

The Pole is hateful and hostile to the Jew and our soldiers find themselves protecting him from the extreme anti-sematic attitude of the unwelcome visitor. Like I say, the narration implies an ambivalence towards the Jew – whilst they don’t seem to care about his fate, they certainly wouldn’t let the Pole dictate the options for him. Despite the light touch of the narration, I formed a very clear mental image of the cottage, right down to the distances between the characters and the nature of the shadows cast by the light from the fire they light. I’d be a happy man if I could write such detail without needing to resort to gushing and descriptive prose. It is, in my opinion, a beautifully written book.

Mingarelli published A Meal In Winter in 2012 (this translation followed in 2013) and was nominated for some prestigious awards. There are some big questions for the reader here. Who did I feel sympathy for as the group of four prepared and ate a meal (after an unspoken debate about whether to allow the Jew his share) with their collective, and meagre, supplies? The answer is obvious, or it should be, and the powerful emotions which rose in me serve as timely reminders to never forget.

In a clever and hinted at sub-plot, there is a mortal fate awaiting one of the three. It is striking that his worries are more about whether his own son will grow up to be a smoker, for example, than the horror about to be dealt to their captive if they carry out the mission to deliver him to base.

Without having a common language between them, the Germans, the Pole and the Jew play out their moral and desperate choices through their actions and gestures. It is truly remarkable to witness this interplay between the five of them through Mingarelli’s prose and the spaces within it.

A quick read which left me reeling. I’m now two and a half books later still getting flashbacks to A Meal In Winter.

I strongly recommend.

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