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Monday, 17 March 2014

A Meal in Winter - Hubert Mingarelli (translated by Sam Taylor) - Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

The author blurb in my edition of “A Meal In Winter” states “Hubert Mingarelli is the author of numerous novels, short story collections and fiction for young adults.”, and the flow of this simple story has a “young adult” feel - although of course the subject matter of WW2 atrocities is probably not young adult fare.

A very simple tale of three men (our narrator, Bauer and Emmerich) who avoid the rostered killings in a "German Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland” and take to the road to find “one of them”. This story is closer to a short story than a novella even, my edition running to 138 pages with decent line spacing and short chapters, I’d hazard a guess at approximately 100 pages of reading.

We were all used to it, we knew what to expect, and yet the cold always came as a shock. It seemed as if it entered through your eyes and spread through your whole body like icy water pouring through two holes. The others were already there, lined up and shivering. While we found our places among them, they hissed at is that we were arse-holes for making the whole company wait like that. We said nothing. We got in line. And, when everyone had stopped shuffling their feet to get warm, Graaf, our lieutenant, told us that there would be more arrivals that day, but late probably, so the work was scheduled for the following day, and that this time our company would be taking care of it. I had the same thought as everyone else: was that all? Couldn’t he have told us that inside?

Two other features permeate this book throughout. The bitter cold and hunger – hence the title of the book. The solid ice, the deep snow, the fact that they can’t even smoke without numerous protective layers, throughout the story there are references to the bitterness. The hunger is stalled by smoking, shrinking back to one’s own thoughts and finally preparations for a simple broth – although lighting a fire to cook the meal is a challenge in itself.

The hunger made me dizzy, and the cold hurt my bones, but I was now thinking that today would end up being even better than my tram dream. I went back to the house with my spirits raised by these thoughts, and when I entered they rose even higher, because the temperature was now above zero.

Our three soldiers find a captive and take him to a hovel to spend the night before returning to camp with their captive. They are joined by a local Pole and they then start questioning the “moral implications of their murderous mission and confront their own consciences”.

I found the simple language of this story refreshing, the distance and moral implications of their roles in exterminating Jews chilling, the justification for their actions and the way they deal with such of course disturbing. A very short and sharp look into the Holocaust using a simple setting and a single meal as the stage for more personal reflection. The silence is described, the inner machinations of our narrator’s mind (as well as his assumptions of his companions) and the “how can I live with myself” moments are clear and concise.

A short review this time for a very short book. Probably not a contender for the main prize due to the brevity (a similar criticism I had of Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary” on the Man Booker Prize list), that doesn’t mean it can’t be “the best work of fiction” I just think a little more meat in the soup may have helped.

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JacquiWine said...

I very much like the sound of this one. I'm hoping to get to it later this week - just waiting for it to arrive at the library :)

Anonymous said...

The term 'Polish concentration camp' is incorrect. The German Nazis established the concentration camps on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

Unknown said...

As this short work is about a specific historical period, let's get the historical facts absolutely correct. During WWII there were no "polish concentration camps", only "German Nazi concentration camps in German-occupied Poland".

Would the blogger please therefore correct this significant historical inaccuracy, with some urgency. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Reputable media outlets such as The New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, AP and others have changed their style guides to expunge the use of erroneous language such as "Polish concentration camps." The Association of German Historians recently condemned the use of such terminology precisely because it is a distortion of history. Please follow their lead and make a correction in order to present the historical truth.

Messy_Tony said...

Thanks for all pointing out an error, it has been corrected as suggested.