Tuesday 25 March 2014

IFFP Guest Post by Jacqui Patience - 'A Meal in Winter' by Hubert Mingarelli

After last week's look at A Man in Love, it's once again time to welcome Jacqui to the blog for one of her guest reviews on this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize contenders.  Today's choice is a book I haven't managed to read yet, so I'm very keen to hear what she has to say - take it away, Jacqui ;) 

Hubert Mingarelli's A Meal in Winter (from Portobello Books, translated by Sam Taylor) is a slim novella, yet it punches well above its weight. The setting is the heart of the Polish countryside at the time of the Second World War. The novella opens in a military camp as three German soldiers - Bauer, Emmerich and the unnamed narrator of the narrative - appeal to their camp commander by volunteering to look for any Jews who might be hiding in the surrounding area. By so doing, the soldiers hope to avoid the more harrowing task of executing captives, as they would ‘rather do the huntings than the shootings’. The commander grants the soldiers’ request, and they leave at the crack of dawn the following morning before the first shootings begin. This means missing breakfast, too, but it’s a price they’re willing to pay to avoid their immediate supervisor, the heartless Lieutenant Graaf.

As the soldiers spend a gruelling day combing the countryside in search of a Jew (‘one of them’), the bitter chill of winter and lack of nourishment begin to take their toll:
We came down from the hill where we had smoked. Bauer whined like a dog that he should never have sat down in the snow, that he felt cold all over now. Emmerich told him to stop, though he said it lightly, not really meaning it. Bauer yelled at us that he’d decided to whine until dark. We found another road and stayed on it for a while. It was a relief not to sink into snow at every step. On the whole, we preferred the frozen potholes, even if they were dangerous.
p.32 (Portobello Books, 2013)
I was beginning to feel hungry, but I didn’t dare bring the subject up yet. None of us had dared mention it since we left that morning. My stomach ached. Sometimes, when I turned my head too quickly, I felt dizzy. It must have been the same for Emmerich and Bauer. (p 32-33)
They find a young Jewish boy cleverly concealed in a hole in the forest, only given away by the heat and snow-melt surrounding the ground-level chimney of his dug-out. Relieved at having captured a prisoner, the soldiers head back to camp. Chilled to the bone, tired and ravenous, they chance upon a deserted hovel and decide to shelter awhile. In desperate need of warmth, the soldiers build a fire and begin to prepare a simple soup from a few meagre ingredients; meanwhile their captive sits quietly in the storeroom.

A Polish man arrives at the hovel; at first his intentions are unclear, but his actions soon show his vehemently anti-Semitic nature:
The pole took a step forward, almost touching us, then looked inside the storeroom, through the half-opened doorway. Because, up to this point, the Jew, though very close, had been invisible to him. The Pole stayed there now, motionless in front of us, staring with his black eyes at the squatting Jew, who stared sadly back. After a moment, the Pole turned his gaze on us, and the distinguished handsomeness of his face vanished. He opened his mouth and bared his gums in a kind of monstrous smile, like a dead fish without teeth. (p. 94)
As preparations for the meal unfold, questions arise: should the soldiers share their meal with the Pole in return for a slug of his potato alcohol? Can he be trusted? Will tensions flare and erupt? The mood oscillates, and small shifts in the dynamics unfold across the group as each soldier starts to question his choices and the moral implications of his mission… and shadows cast by earlier events are ever-present.

This is a stealthily gripping novella with a real sense of foreboding. The small cast of five key characters, coupled with the confined setting of the hovel, give the drama a theatrical feel, and I could almost see it working as a play. I love the way it quickly whips up an atmosphere and tangible sense of place from the first page. The prose style is fairly sparse and to the point (and hats off to Sam Taylor for some sterling work on the translation). There’s not a spare word on the page, and yet it manages to pack a great deal into 135 pages.

I read this novel on a relatively mild spring evening, yet Mingarelli’s vivid depiction of the frozen landscape and biting conditions left me craving the warmth of a bowl of Ribollita, my favourite soup.  And this feeling was only heightened by the soldiers’ anticipation of their meal:
The soup looked good and smelled good. The slices of salami floated on the surface, carried there by the cornmeal, now cooked. The melted lard was still boiling.
We turned away from the stove, and the heat caressed our backs. We watched steam rise from the soup. My head was spinning. We looked at the slices of bread. The soup was continuing to simmer. The edges of the bread were toasted, reminding us of things past. (p.115)
Dare I say this is another book I’d love to see on the IFFP shortlist? While Mingarelli has written many novels and short stories, this is his first to appear in English; I sincerely hope we’ll be able to read more of his novels and short stories in years to come.