More Foreign Fiction! ‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli is also shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (and if you think I do am obsessed with work in translation you would be RIGHT). This is a short novel which takes place over one day with a small cast of characters- and therefore has a level of intensity which makes it much more engaging than for example, ‘Black Sheep’. The first person narrator is a German soldier during World War 2 stationed in Poland and on this day he sets off with two comrades, now friends, to hunt down Jews hiding in the forest. They track down a Jew and take him to a rundown hovel nearby where a Polish man turns up. The Germans cook, the meal is shared and they return with the Jew to their base. The novel shows superbly the state of mind of the soldiers, their fear, boredom and sickness at the tasks they have to carry out. It shows their physical suffering: the desolate snowy landscapes have an inhuman beauty but the cold is overwhelming and frequent, detailed descriptions of small adjustments of clothing to mitigate its bite evoke the misery it causes. The lengthy account of breaking up furniture to make a fire and the deliberations over the preparation of the meal show human beings reduced to their most basic physical needs. I found it difficult to read this novel without my head filling with images from the German T.V. film ‘Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter’, recently shown on BBC2 as ‘Generation War’: here, the Jewish character Viktor, ends up hiding out with the Polish partisans, but concealing his identity, as the Partisans were anti-semitic, which was hotly disputed in a discussion at the end of the series. That aside, the action takes place in the forest in Poland and involves German soldiers, Polish partisans and Jews as here, so it was hard to dispel those images while reading the story. Another interesting comparison is with ‘The Iraqi Christ’, given that both deal with humans suffering from war and violence. ‘A Meal in Winter’ has a more conventional linear narrative and no surreal elements and the brutality of the action takes place in a location far away from civilian life, yet the themes of friendship and the importance of dreams feature in both. And both explore the question of how and to what extent human beings are brutalised by war. ‘A Meal in Winter’ shows us humans at times connecting with ‘the enemy’, but ultimately, always, bound up with their own survival.

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