In A Meal In Winter, three German soldiers head out on a hunting expedition through fields covered in snow. They’re cold, bone weary and ravenous yet they had begged their commander for this assignment. Better this than yet another day of shooting prisoners; work that had given them bad dreams and robbed them of their humanity.
The true nature of their mission is revealed slowly. These men are under orders to hunt down “one of them” – Jews hiding out in the Polish countryside – and bring them to the camp to be shot.
Having flushed out a young man from an underground hiding place, the soldiers take temporary refuge in a derelict house. The soldiers break up furniture to fire up the stove so they can transform their meagre rations of cornmeal, salami and bread into the first meal they’ve had all day. It becomes “the strangest meal we ever had in Poland.”
Tension mounts when a Polish hunter arrives seeking shelter from the snow. His stream of anti-Semitic invective directed towards the prisoner forces each soldier to confront his conscience and the morality of their undertaking.
A Meal In Winter is a slim novella but the tale that unfolds over 138 pages is so dark and chilling it is breathtaking. Mingarelli’s narrative follows the three men as they confront a series of questions over the course of the day. One wants answers for his fears about his son’s welfare. Others wonder if they should break up furniture to fuel the stove so the soup cooks quicker. Should they eat the salami separately or add it to their soup? Should they let the prisoner share their soup?
The questions culminate in the biggest decision they must confront: what to do with their prisoner. The soldiers are in no doubt about the boy’s fate once they get him back to camp. They’re sick of the shootings. If they let the boy escape, the knowledge they had saved just one one person could make them feel better in the future. Yet if they return empty handed to the camp, their own futures will be threatened.
These complex moral questions contrast with the almost prosaic delivery of the narrative. Hubert Mingarelli’s prose is tightly contrived and sparse, with not a word wasted. He deliberately omits certain key facts from the early part of the novel – it’s not until the second third that the word Jew is mentioned for example – leaving us to read between the lines. It makes the dreadful truth of the soldier’s mission even more chilling. Easily one of the most impactful books I’ve read this year.
A Meal In Winter by Hubert Mingarelli: Endnotes
Hubert Mingarelli was born in Lorraine, France though lived much of his life in Grenoble. He won the Prix Medici in 2003 for his novel Four Soldiers (Quatre Soldats). A Meal In Winter (Un Repas d’Hiver), translated by Sam Taylor, was published in the UK in 2013 by Portobello books (now sadly defunct). It was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the forerunner of the Booker International Prize.
He died from cancer on January 26, 2020 at the age of 64.
I had never heard of Mingarelli until I read a review of another of his books by Susan @alifeinbooks. A Meal In Winter arrived from the library in perfect time for Novellas in November. It transpires that Four Soldiers and A Meal in Winter form part of a trilogy that is completed by The Invisible Land. They are definitely on my list to read in the future.
For other blogger reviews of this book see:
Susan @ alifeinbooks
Lisa @ anzlitlovers