A Meal in Winter: A Novel of World War II
- By Hubert Mingarelli; translated by Sam Taylor
- The New Press
- 144 pp.
- Reviewed by Marilyn Oser
- July 7, 2016
Against a bleak, frigid backdrop, three German soldiers struggle with survival and empathy.
Spoiler alert: This reviewer is reluctant to summarize Hubert Mingarelli’s gem of a novel. The story unfolds subtly and exquisitely; it reveals its ins and outs all in perfect time. A plot summary strikes me as something of a violation in this case, diminishing the evolution of discovery that the reader ought to experience in A Meal in Winter. Still, no summary can lessen the power of this slim volume. So unless you’re already convinced to go buy the book and plunge in without so much as scanning the back cover — as I wholeheartedly urge you to do — then, by all means, keep on reading.
Three German soldiers — Bauer, Emmerich, and the unnamed narrator — are stationed somewhere in Poland. It’s the dead of winter in the depths of the Second World War. To escape the day’s work, they’ve wheedled an assignment to go out hunting for “some of them.” Even a long day spent walking through the pitiless snow and ice is better than staying back for a morning shooting the new “arrivals.”
They leave before dawn and without breakfast to avoid the hostility that will greet them from those who’ll be left behind to do the “work.” Only if they stay out all day and come back successful will they be able to go out again tomorrow to avoid taking part in the killings.
Wrapped up in greatcoats and helmets and scarves and balaclavas and thick gloves, the cold “like icy water pouring through [the] two holes” of their exposed eyes, they traverse bleak landscapes and from time to time share their opinions and anxieties. The compassion they have for each other — communicated in barely a word — speaks volumes of their bond of friendship.
But it’s a fraught bond all the same, of hurt souls constrained by human limitation. The problem-solving they do together — when to stop for a smoke; how to keep Emmerich’s teenage son from starting to smoke — poignantly reveals the complex emotions underneath the simple necessities that rule their lives. The presence or absence of a wind can make all the difference between a very good day and a very bad one.
Almost by accident, they find “one.” The Jew has been hiding himself in a hole near the edge of a wood. He’s dressed more warmly than they, but there is no thought of stealing his clothing, not even the hand-embroidered hat that galls the narrator because of the maternal tenderness implicit in gratuitous sewing.
With the Jew in custody, they find an abandoned hovel where a great deal of trouble is taken to make a fire and prepare what for them constitutes a feast: a dozen thin slices of salami, a few hunks of bread, an onion, and a handful of cornmeal cooked into a soup. The intrusion of an anti-Semitic Pole into their meager haven prompts them to share their food with the Jew as a way of taking the Pole down a peg.
It’s after everything has been eaten and they’re ready to return to base that the three men face the issue hanging over them: Should they let their prisoner go? They know saving one Jew would not make a difference in the scheme of things. But what difference to their dreams at night? And what difference to their affinity for each other?
If the conflict sounds heavy-handed, it is anything but. Complex and nuanced, it plumbs the depths and limits of empathy, and it is ramified further by our knowledge, provided through the anguished narrator, that in the coming spring Emmerich will die of a gunshot while Bauer and the narrator stand by helpless and silent — shattered by their failure to do they know not what.
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor, Mingarelli’s language is spare, often reminiscent of Hemingway: “We listened to him. We understood him and we did not understand him and we were too hot in our coats, and after three days the killings were still filling up our minds, boiling away inside them, and spilling over.”
The sound of the men’s voices, especially Bauer’s (a whine, a moan, a shout), and the movement of their eyes and hands and heads, embody the strength and fragility of the connections among them. Their rifles are a constant presence in the narrative, used violently, though not the shooting ends; instead, the butt ends become battering rams that smash ice and wood and, if necessary, another man’s back.
Nothing in this work is inessential — it doesn’t even have chapter numbers or headings, just eloquent blank spaces. In its silences, in its simplicity, in its depth of feeling communicated with restraint and meticulous delicacy, A Meal in Winter delivers everything it promises.