A Meal in Winter, by Hubert Mingarelli (Granta), translated by Sam Taylor. This is a tricky book, because it is (comparatively speaking) overpriced, at £12.99 for around 130 pages of prose for the current hardback (more on this in a bit), and yet it is a sensational, highly unique piece of prose. Three German soldiers are stationed with their company in a farm in Poland. It is winter, bitterly cold, they are underfed and their morale is low. Most days they are given the task of shooting Jewish people, and can only get out of this duty by being picked to go out to hunt for Jews in the surrounding frozen woods and fields. This is a story about the lesser of two evils, about human beings, not monsters, who are preoccupied with the needs of warmth and food and the fierce desire to have a day off from executing people. Mingarelli performs a brilliant tightrope feat in this novel(la?), never forgiving the three soldiers, but instead putting the onus on us, the reader, making us think about what we would do.
Unfortunately I forgot to bring my copy into work this morning, so cannot quote from it, which is a real shame because Sam Taylor’s translation is an example of fantastic writing, spare, emotional, and driven forward by the needs of stomach and skin (I will try to add one later when I gt home). I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel from the viewpoint of a soldier actively involved in the Holocaust, which is rather remarkable when it has such are large influence on post-WW2 literatures. I am probably forgetting some major work of literature here. Mingarelli places you amongst this unlikely trio, and you can sense the damage they are carrying inside, and their isolation.
I’d wait for the paperback, though. Such a slim novel doesn’t need to be hardback, and actually it just didn’t work well either, especially when trying to flick back to bits read earlier. A small gripe, and I have no problem paying that much for a book (as I obviously did), but it is worth mentioning I think. The short time-frame covered and lean prose really does suit the shorter style, and I think I will be digesting this one for far longer than I will some of the longer novels I have read in the past.
[Note: I was drawn to this book after reading about it on the brilliant translation blog Winstonsdad, where Stu has also listed his other predictions of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – you’ll be seeing reviews for a fair few of these in the coming weeks.]