Thursday, 8 May 2014

'A Meal in Winter' by Hubert Mingarelli (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 15)

After a long and arduous trek, stretching from Germany to Japan, with stops in countries such as Spain and Iraq in between, we've finally reached the last stop of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize journey.  We're in Poland today, but it's only a brief stay - it's rather cold outside...

A Meal in Winter by Hugo Mingarelli - Portobello Books
(translated by Sam Taylor)
What's it all about?
We're in Poland during the Second World War, and three German soldiers are out bright and early on patrol in the countryside.  Sick of taking part in firing squads, the trio have volunteered to scour the surrounding area for Jews in hiding, mainly to avoid having to shoot the ones already captured:
"We went at dawn, before the first shootings.  That meant missing breakfast, but it also meant not having to face Graaf, who would be filled with hatred that we had gone over his head."
p.9 (Portobello Books, 2013)
While leaving early avoids a run-in with their superior, it also means that they don't have time to eat, a decision which will affect how their day unfolds.

After a few hours' walking in the freezing cold, they uncover a Jew hiding in a hole and start walking back towards their camp.  Hunger and cold, however, force them to stop off at an old abandoned house, where they decide to start a fire to cook the meagre rations they have brought with them.  The Jew obediently takes his place in a storage cupboard, and the soldiers get to work preparing the meal - when an unexpected, and unwelcome, visitor upsets the equilibrium...

A Meal in Winter is a very short work, its 138 pages exaggerating its size; I actually finished this in well under an hour.  It can barely be called a novella, more an extended short story, and in its focus on a very limited area and group of protagonists, it's actually more akin to a play.  The book is divided into short sections, and the language is fairly simple, more plain than elegant, but very effective.

The writer is effectively basing a story on a moral dilemma, setting up a situation where the soldiers have to make a choice about what to do with the prisoner they wish they hadn't found in the first place.  Initially driven by a desire to justify their escape from the camp, the soldiers begin to regret their discovery once they have time to reflect on it in comfort.

Mingarelli is careful to humanise his creations, with all three soldiers drawn out as real people caught up in a horrible situation.  Bauer is a petty thief, quick to anger, while Emmerich is more withdrawn, preoccupied with the issue of how to raise his son in absentia.  The unnamed narrator is equally realistic, haunted (like the others) by the memories of his daily duties:
"Because if you want to know what it is that tormented me, and that torments me to this day, it's seeing that kind of thing on the clothes of the Jews we're going to kill: a piece of embroidery, coloured buttons, a ribbon in the hair.  I was always pierced by those thoughtful maternal displays of tenderness." (p.81)
Despite their orders, and the racism instilled in the soldiers from birth, it's not hard to see that it would be tempting for them to let it slide, just this one time...

The unexpected visitor, a Pole who turns up with some alcohol, hoping to share in the meal, acts as a catalyst to the situation, his obvious loathing of the Jew bringing the soldiers' better nature to the fore.  As the warmth of the hut brings everyone closer together, the story runs towards its inevitable end where two questions will be answered?  Will everyone get something to eat?  And what will happen to the prisoner...

Did it deserve to make the longlist?
No, I don't think so.  A Meal in Winter is almost painfully slight, and while it's carefully constructed, with a lot to like, it's nothing more than an interesting short story.  The figure of the Pole is a weak point, a cartoonish character designed to raise sympathy for the Jewish captive, and the writing, while clear, has nothing which raises it above the crowd.  For this to really be worthy of a spot on the shortlist, the writing would have to be excellent, and in my opinion it's just good :)

Why did it make the shortlist?
Not sure really, unless there's a secret clause 324 c (ii) in the IFFP regulations which states that a WW2-themed book must be on the shortlist every year.  It's a good book, worthy of the longlist, and it has grown on me since I finished it, but when you consider the books that were left off the shortlist (The Sorrow of Angels, Brief Loves that Live Forever, The Infatuations), you can't help but wonder whether the Wehrmacht connection got it over the line.

And if it takes out the whole thing, then I'm done with the IFFP.  Seriously.

So, that's your lot, then.  Fifteen works of translated fiction, rated, slated and ready to be judged by posterity.  The prize will be handed out in two weeks' time, and the Shadow Panel will be announcing their verdict shortly before that (I'm fairly sure that - for the third year running - we'll be choosing a very different champion!).  I'll be back next week with a review of the journey and my prediction for what the 'real' judges will opt for - see you next time :)