Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter is heralded as ‘a miniature masterpiece’ in its blurb, and tells ‘the story of three soldiers who capture a Jewish prisoner and face a chilling choice.’ It was first published in France in 2012, and has been translated from its original French by Sam Taylor, recent translator of Laurent Binet’s excellent novel HHhH. It is Mingarelli’s first work to appear in English.
A Meal in Winter is set during the Second World War in the depths of the Polish countryside. It begins in the following way: ‘They had rung the iron gong outside and it was still echoing, at first for real in the courtyard, and then, for a longer time, inside our heads’. The entirety of the novella is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed German narrator.
Three soldiers, including the narrator, are sent out on a mission at dawn, ‘before the first shootings’. Their mission is to capture a Jew and take him back to their base, where he or she will be dealt with. The narrator’s fellow soldiers are named Bauer and Emmerich, the only two protagonists in the novella to have been given names. The entire novella has been split into quite short chapters, and is quite simple in its prose style, which contrasts rather chillingly at times with the futility which it presents. It is tinged throughout with memories from the pre-war past of the soldiers, as well as strange foreshadowings of the future.
In the story, the soldiers find a tiny hidden dwelling in the countryside, spotting a ‘chimney which was barely raised above the ground’. A man emerges from the depths: ‘We didn’t see anything in his eyes either – no fear, no despair… All we could see of his face were his eyes… They were ringed with dirt and fatigue, but not enough to hide his youth. Despite the tiredness they showed, they still shone with life’. This man is referred to from this point onwards as ‘the Jew’. This, and other elements within the novella, are harrowing in terms of the impersonal way in which Jews were viewed by the German soldiers: ‘We were no longer allowed to kill them when we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact. These days, we had to bring them back’. The narrator goes on to say, ‘We’d only caught one, but he smelt bad enough for ten’.
Whilst walking in the countryside with the Jew in tow, the men find a closed-up house and break in. They begin to burn the furniture in order to warm up and cook a meal – a soup which is savoured. Mingarelli’s setting has been developed well, and some of the scenes which he has crafted are incredibly vivid. It feels as though he has broken the constraints of the narrowed view that all German soldiers viewed Jews with scorn, and has included some shreds of compassion for the prisoner, however small. In this way, Mingarelli demonstrates both the good and evil which wartime situations can produce. A Meal in Winter is most interesting with respect to the ways in which the language barrier causes them to communicate using different methods. Mingarelli has crafted a novella which is very dark in places, and is quite unsettling in the foreboding which it builds.