In these months, the busiest of the bookselling year, thousands of books will compete for your attention. Some will have huge marketing budgets to ensure they are not missed. Some will just be placed spine out on the shelf of your local bookshop. Some won’t even have that luxury. A Meal in Winter will probably suffer the fate of the latter. But that is no great indicator of its worth… Here is my review:
A Meal in Winter is a novella. You can read it in a night. But it punches well above its weight.
I am told A Meal in Winter will be published as a gorgeous little hardcover but I read the proof, a very drab looking proof is was too, and for some reason, even before I read a page, I had the notion that this was a rediscovered work, much like the work of Irène Némirovsky. To further compound my assumption, as I read, I was reminded of Primo Levi, of Beckett, of Camus.
But this is not a rediscovered work. Though it is set in WWII and reads like it was written during or shortly after the war, A Meal in Winter was written in the last few years and is now available in English having been translated from the French. And this fact alone would make it an astonishing work. But this is just the start. In 144 pages, author Hubert Mingarelli strips the Second World War down so that it stands before us shivering in its underwear. And what is surprising, even though he has reduced something so unimaginably huge and complicated into something so small and finely wrought, he manages to avoid trivialising the horrors of that awful period by his reduction.
We accompany three German soldiers as they journey out into the sub-zero Polish winter in search of fugitive Jews. We are privy to their conversation. We take part in their attempts to remain alive, and sane. We are forced to accept their humanity. And because of this, when they do manage to capture a hiding Jew, we are brought uncomfortably close to a truth we all try hard to avoid.
by Hubert Mingarelli
A miniature masterpiece, this is the sparse, stunning story of three soldiers who share a meal with their Jewish prisoner and face a chilling choice.
One morning, in the dead of winter, three German soldiers are dispatched into the frozen Polish countryside. They have been charged by their commanders to track down and bring back for execution ‘one of them’ – a Jew.
Having flushed out the young man hiding in the woods, they decide to rest in an abandoned house before continuing their journey back to the camp. As they prepare food, they are joined by a passing Pole whose outspoken anti-Semitism adds tension to an already charged atmosphere.
Before long, the group’s sympathies have splintered as they consider the moral implications of their murderous mission and confront their own consciences to ask themselves: should the Jew be offered food? And, having shared their meal, should he be taken back, or set free?
About the Author
Hubert Mingarelli is the author of numerous novels, short story collections and fiction for young adults. His book Quatre Soldats [Four Soldiers], Le Seuil, (2003) won the Prix de Medicis. He lives in Grenoble.
Sam Taylor is a translator, novelist and journalist. His translated works include Laurent Binet’s award-winning novel HHhH. His own novels have been translated in 10 languages.