A Meal in Winter

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After Butterflies in November, it was almost a relief to be reading the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize’s obligatory Holocaust novel: A Meal in Winter, translated by Sam Taylor who was last year represented by HHhH, another tale of Nazi soldiers, albeit a more complex one. Its French author, Hubert Mingarelli, is apparently better known for writing fiction for ‘young adults’ in his home country; this is his first novel translated in to English.

Simplicity is the key to A Meal in Winter: it tells the story of three German soldiers posted in Poland during the Second World War. They are there to kill Jews, though this is only alluded to at first:

“He hadn’t told us how many were coming. He knew it made a difference to us, that it was important. Because if a lot came, he worried that we’d start reporting sick that night.”

The trio (Bauer, Emmerich and the narrator) escape “the killings” by volunteering to go “hunting” instead, leaving early the next morning. They find a Jew hiding in the forest and begin to march him back to camp. On the way they stop at an abandoned cottage to make a fire and eat, a meal that is interrupted by a Polish soldier who joins them, bartering alcohol in return for food. There they must decide whether to let the Jew go or take him back to his certain death.

Although the narrative is simple, Mingarelli succeeds in adding depth and complexity to it in a number of subtle ways. For example, the narrator’s dream of the three soldiers together on a tram not only provides a contrast to their present situation but reminds us that these are three conscripted civilians. The same can be said of Emmerich’s fretting about his son taking up smoking. Both also illustrate their comradeship: in the discussion as to what Emmerich should do and in the narrator’s reluctance to share his dream as it might lead to a discussion of other, more troubled dreams. Mingarelli also reveals Emmerich’s eventual fate early in the narrative:

“I would have seen the bridge in Galicia. I would have seen Emmerich leaning against a pillar, eyes wide open in the warm Galician springtime. I would have heard him pant and spit, trying desperately to speak to us…But the blood was choking him…”

This may at first seem an unnecessary postmodern affectation, or even simply mawkishly sentimental, but Mingarelli use it later to create the novel’s conclusion.

Mingarelli also focuses (as the title suggests) on the cold and the soldiers’ hunger. As they strip the cottage for wood to burn, they wonder whether to eat their salami and bread while the soup is cooking, and whether the meal in the soup will cook at all. The final decision they have to make, however, is whether to let the Jew go:

“How many have we killed?… 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.”

The question is whether this one act really would make any difference. I won’t reveal their decision, but I will say I found the novel’s conclusion satisfying. Of the IFFP novels I hadn’t read before, this is the one, traditional as it is, I have found most rewarding. Though I cannot fathom how it was preferred to Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts (and, anyway, there’s usually at least two Holocaust books on every list).

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One Response to “A Meal in Winter”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    I don’t know how chasing hearts missed the cut myself I did like the interplay between the characters in this one it was a small corner of the war but the whole war in that room

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