Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 27, 2021

The Invisible Land, by Hubert Mingarelli, translated by Sam Taylor

It came as a shock to learn from the dustjacket of The Invisible Land that Hubert Mingarelli (b. 1956) died in January 2020.  It was only last year that I discovered his writing… thanks to Tony from Tony’s Book World, I read and reviewed A Meal in Winter (2012) but I have Quatre Soldats (Four Soldiers, 2003) on my French editions TBR, and I know Mingarelli as the author of perfect little novellas, which meditate on the culpability of ordinary people in war.  It is sobering to think that there will be no more new books from this writer, though perhaps there will be more translations of his work.  I hope so.

The ordinary people of The Invisible Land are the two main characters, an unnamed photojournalist who narrates the story, and O’Leary, the young soldier assigned to him as a driver.  But there are also the ordinary German people who are the subject of the photographer’s quest across a desolate landscape.  WW2 is over, and the British battalion is assessing the situation in North-West Germany at Dinslaken, where there had been a labour camp.  The horrors of the camp are not the focus of the narrative: it’s their effect on the people who have to deal with the aftermath which is so powerfully conveyed.

Colonel  Collins, the English battalion commander, is barely in control of his hatred, his distress about the atrocities he has seen economically conveyed in his response to a request for shoes:

‘They all ask me for something,’ he said.  ‘But I make them understand that there’s a time to keep their mouths shut.  If they start crying to soften me up, I’m afraid I’ll lose my temper.’ […] ‘Today,’ he said, ‘they came to ask me for shoes. I said, “You think I’ve opened a shop?” I started laughing and I told them to go away.  They started to leave.  Then I said, “No, hang on, I remember where there are some, but take a van.”  I showed them on the map where they could find huge piles of shoes.’ (p.7)

Without being able to articulate his reasons for doing so, the photographer sets off with O’Leary into the surrounding countryside to photograph ordinary Germans.  Like all those who first encountered the German atrocities in WW2 and those who have learned about them thereafter, he is unable to make sense of it.  How was it that ordinary people could have been complicit in what was done?  Mingarelli’s vignettes are an attempt to answer this unanswerable question. They demonstrate the accretion of dehumanisation.

As the photographer and his driver make their way from one site to another, they accumulate small cruelties.  With no shared language, they succeed in ordering about the people they come across, demanding that they submit to being photographed.  Memorably, they insist that a sleeping bride be woken after her wedding night.  They see the farms recovering, including one where there is a sea of lupins, and they crush this beauty under their boots.  They find a body trapped in debris on the river bank, and release it to float away, perhaps to the sea where it will never be found.  This troubles O’Leary, but his companion is indifferent.

Right from the start, the photographer does not distinguish between those with culpability and those who do not:

…using sign language, I explained what I wanted to do.  He glanced at the sky, turned around and called out in a deep voice.  The woman came out and he whispered a few words to her.  She was much younger than him.  I took a few steps back, signalled to them to turn towards me, and just as I was about to take the picture a little girl in an embroidered dress appeared at the door.  The man spoke gently to her and the girl started to move away.  I made him understand that she should stand between them.  The man held out his hand and when she was in place I pressed the button.  The woman and the girl immediately went back inside.  The man didn’t move.  As I walked to the car, I noticed that I was trembling slightly and it wasn’t as hot. (p.30)

The photographer, who suffers from nightmares about the corpses at the labour camp, mulls over events, and realises that the large German car they are driving belonged to the camp administrator, and that is why passing army trucks don’t care if they run it off the road.  He also realises that the weeping woman in soldier’s boots who was turned away from the battalion, was pleading for her husband’s life.

O’Leary, who enlisted too late to actually be involved in any battles, has a troubled history, which reminds us that evil is everywhere.

Sam Taylor’s translation is immaculate.

Author: Hubert Mingarelli
Title: The Invisible Land
Publisher: Granta, 2020, first published in French as La Terre Invisible in 2019
Translated by Sam Taylor
Cover design by Nathan Burton
ISBN: 9781783786022, hbk., 139 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. I must read this. ‘A Meal in Winter’ and ‘Four Soldiers’ have stayed with me.

    Like

    • Yes, he’s a brilliant writer, and Sam Taylor’s translations are pitch perfect.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘The Invisible Land’, from your description, sounds like another novel by Hubert Mingarelli that deals with the German atrocities during World war II in a quiet indirect profound way
    It’s rather sad that Mingarelli died at the young age of 66.

    Like

    • That’s a good way of describing his style. He reminds me a bit of Rebecca West and her quiet devastating way of writing about the same thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This book sounds so interesting. I love stories about photographers especially during this time period. I was saddened to hear Larry McMurtry died this week also. He was a well known and loved American writer who wrote about life in the west.

    Like

    • Have you come across The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman, by Helen Lewis? I heard about it on radio national, it’s about her father who was a photojournalist in WW2, and it was excellent. I’d never realised how demanding and sometimes dangerous their jobs were, until I read that book.

      Like

  4. Added to my wishlist!

    Like

    • You might be lucky and find it in your library. I was surprised to find it in mine…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve already looked. They only have his book Four Soldiers. Have you read that one?

        Like

  5. I like the sound of this – but maybe for less fraught times.

    Like

    • Those times will pass, Simon. I hope you’ve been able to find something you can enjoy reading at the moment.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m older than the author and I grew up reading (admittedly mostly triumphalist) accounts of WWII. I can’t see the point of reading reconstructions now, however well written.

    Like

  7. I have several of Mingarelli’s books on my to-read list. Unfortunately, our library only has one – A Meal in Winter. I guess I should be happy we have any at all. I’m hoping to eventually read one for Novellas in November.

    Like

  8. […] reviewed 166 books in this category, and still they keep coming.  The most recent one I read was The Invisible Land by the late Hubert Mingarelli set during the Occupation of postwar Germany and exploring how dehumanisation can take hold, and […]

    Like

  9. […] Read because: Lisa Hill’s recent review on ANZLitlovers https://anzlitlovers.com/2021/03/27/the-invisible-land-by-hubert-mingarelli-translated-by-sam-taylor… […]

    Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: