Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 13, 2020

A Meal in Winter, by Hubert Mingarelli, translated by Sam Taylor

This novella has been widely reviewed and was nominated for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but I am indebted to Tony from Tony’s Book World for his recommendation.

It’s a melancholy book, one that only reinforces my view that societies need to be vigilant about countering anything that fosters the dehumanisation of The Other.  Whether it’s the Rohinga in Burma, or using drones to kill enemies in an undeclared war, or closer to home on Manus Island, we need to guard against desensitising Everyman to the humanity of others.  A Meal in Winter shows you what happens if you turn a blind eye.

Narrated by a German soldier during what is obviously WW2 in Poland, the story traces the day when he and his two mates Bauer and Emmerich go out hunting.  In an ironic nod to the beginning of Solzenhitzen’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich the day begins with reveille outside in the snow.  But unlike the men in the Soviet gulag, the men who yearn to stay indoors are not inmates in flimsy clothing leaving icy barracks where the frost lies inches thick on the windowpanes.  No.  These men are warm inside, and they have boots and scarves and gloves and woollen balaclavas to wear outside.  They are perpetrators.

From their point of view, there is no need for the daily briefing to take place out in the bitter weather.  They are irritated by their Lieutenant Graaf who indulges his own sense of self-importance by unnecessary displays of power. So they dawdle their way outside, contemptuous of their fellow soldiers who’ve had to wait for them in the freezing conditions.  And as soon as Graaf’s back is turned, they override his authority by visiting the Commander…

This detachment has the job of hunting out Jews and shooting them, but although anyone reading the book knows this from the blurb, (and hopefully from their knowledge of history) the nature of the ‘work’ is not revealed till later in the story.  The tone of the narration is so blasé that some readers may possibly think that the hunt is for animals, perhaps to eat.  However, this illusion is dispelled once the soldier reveals his reason for wanting to go out on the hunt.  Graaf tells them that will be more ‘arrivals’ later that day and that their company would be ‘taking care of them in the morning.’  The narrator is at first sanguine:

I had the same thought as everyone else: is that all?  Couldn’t he have told us that inside?’ (p.5)

But then he goes on to say that some of the soldiers could be expected to ‘report sick’ rather than show up for duty in the morning, and there would be more of these if there were many ‘arrivals’. And he tells us that they are feeling the pressure of the work they’ll have to do, especially Emmerich.

They tell all this to the Commander who is visibly distraught due to his role in the ‘work’ but the narrator’s main concern is that he should continue being there, lest they end up with a new and less understanding Commander, or worse, with Graaf in charge.

We explained to him that we would rather do the hunting than the shootings.  We told him we didn’t like the shootings: that doing it made us feel bad at the time and gave us bad dreams at night.  When we woke in the morning, we felt down as soon as we started thinking about it, and if it went on like this, soon we wouldn’t be able to stand it at all — and if it ended up making us ill we’d be no use to anybody.’ (p. 8)

At this stage what is being hunted and killed has still not been named. The reader has been reminded that as soldiers they have ‘no choice’ — they have to ‘obey orders’ — and there has been an ironic attempt to enlist sympathy by stating that it took courage to go out in weather like that.  The reader knows that it is a different kind of courage that is needed…

So.  They set off on their way, cold and hungry because they skipped breakfast rather than run the risk of Graaf’s intervention.  Their search is desultory and it is not until it dawns on them that they might be able to wangle another day away from the shooting if they find someone, that they head towards the forest, the only place they had a chance of surviving, and we of finding them.

And (as it tells us in the blurb) they do find someone, and when they take shelter in an abandoned house, a Pole turns up, wanting to share their meal.  In contrast to their indifference to the humanity of their captive, he is virulently anti-Semitic, generating the only tension in the otherwise detached tone of the narrative.  For them, ‘hunting’ is a job to be done.  There’s no real malice in it, merely indifference, and it relieves their sense of disquiet about the shootings.  They find the Pole’s loathing for the (nameless) Jew disconcerting, and in an ironic inversion of the ways we have seen Germans bait vulnerable Jews in movies, they bait this Pole in various humiliating ways.  But they’re not doing it to take the moral high ground.  Not at all.

It is only during the meal that they give any consideration to letting the Jew go.  Emmerich’s reason is chilling, and especially so because he has been depicted as the sensitive one.  But it’s not pity, or recognition of the young man’s humanity or any moral compulsion about the evil they’re complicit in… it’s because it would make them feel better.

…Bauer stared into the saucepan as if he were reading something, and said, ‘Why should he go back to his hole?  We went to so much trouble. We left without eating breakfast.  We froze our balls off.  What was the point of it all?’

Emmerich took his time lighting his cigarette.  The he leaned across so he could see us both, Bauer and me.

‘The point is, at least we’d have done it once.’

He took a drag on his cigarette.  He drummed on the table. He fidgeted like crazy.  And then he turned as still as a statue.

‘How many have we killed?  he asked, trying to control his voice. ‘It’s making us sick.  We’ve had it up to here.  We should let him go.  When we think about him, we’ll feel better.’ (p.130)

Mingarelli also uses a conversation between the three soldiers to illustrate their complicity. Early in the day while they are smoking, Emmerich begins to fret about not wanting his son to take up the habit.  The conversation, which then recurs on and off throughout the day, drifts across strategies he and they together might try to sway the boy, but all of them seem hopeless.  This analogy shows us that Emmerich knows that having done what he has already done, he is damned, and that there is no redemption for him or his fellow-soldiers.  But he hopes his son will be different.

That it’s a hollow hope can be seen from the narrator’s reaction to seeing a snowflake embroidered on the captive’s hat.  This symbol of a mother’s love angers him, because it threatens his indifference.  He knows it means that someone loves this man.

See also the brief review in The Guardian.

PS From a visit to another blog review about this book, I noted three comments objecting to the reviewer’s designation of the camp as Polish.   Given the thematic intent of the book, this is IMO misplaced indignation, and well-orchestrated too.  I won’t be hosting any comments that contribute to the whitewash of Poland’s WW2 history.

Author: Hubert Mingarelli
Title: A Meal in Winter
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Portobello Books, 2013, first published in French as Un repas en hiver, 2012
ISBN: 9781846275340
Source: Bayside Library

 


Responses

  1. I read “Four Soldiers” by Hubert Mingarelli, and it sounds very similar to this book. In fact, rather too similar, although rather less happens in “Four Soldiers”. I didn’t really know quite what to make of it.

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    • That’s the one set in the Russian Civil War… it seems to be a preoccupation of his? I haven’t read it, but Paul Fulcher whose reviews I follow at GR suggests it’s about the universal experience of soldiers at war… whereas I think this one is not exactly universal because these soldiers are fighting an undeclared, indeed secret war, and they know it.

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  2. I’ve enjoyed both his books although not very similar tone

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    • I’m a bit tempted to try Four Soldiers in French, if I can get hold of it. The language is so very simple, I reckon I could probably read it in the original language:)

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  3. I have indeed seen this one turning up on a lot of blogs, and it sounds very, very powerful and dark.

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    • And it’s just a novella of only 138 pages! This is what I like about translations, the ones that get translated tend to be short, and they are often very powerful in a condensed way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is an excellent analysis of ‘A Meal in Winter’. Also thanks for the link to my article.

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    • Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

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  5. Did you know that the translator Sam Taylor is also the translator for HhHH by Laurence Binet, another excellent novel about the flight of Rudolf Hess?

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    • I did know that … I always tag the translators by their name & role (i.e. Sam Taylor translator), and WordPress always remembers that tag if I’ve used it before. So I checked what I’d used it for when WP remembered it for me, and yes, it’s my review of HhHH. That was a brilliant book.
      I think Taylor is a very fine translator indeed.

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  6. I think I will read this. Thank you.

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  7. And, of course, I need to read ‘Four Soldiers’ as well. Both now reserved at the library. I have no self control. :-)

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  8. I don’t like historical fiction. I particularly don’t like the Holocaust being used as a background for in this case the tedium of soldiering. I don’t know why you would see it as any different to Demidenko’s The Hand..

    So, I wouldn’t read it and if I picked it up by accident I would throw it away.

    Interestingly, the SS demonstrated their power over the prisoners at Belsen in exactly the same way as the author imagines here, by holding them outside in the cold for long meaningless assemblies (The Children’s Camp of Belsen).

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    • I don’t think HF has been used here as a background for the tedium of soldiering. Other reviewers have said that, but I think it’s being used to say squarely that men like these are every bit as responsible for the genocide as those who planned it. They know it’s wrong, and they do it anyway.
      I haven’t read Demidenko, and I doubt I ever will.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] A Meal in Winter, by Hubert Mingarelli, translated by Sam Taylor […]

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