…………There is of course no shortage of books set during the Second World War and many focus on the Holocaust. Over the years I’ve read several and while the subject matter is always horrific, it seems to me that if new books about the Nazi atrocities don’t find a fresh way to engage the reader, there’s a risk we may either become slightly disengaged from the shocking reality of what was done or perhaps simply stop reading books set around the Holocaust altogether. I’d certainly wondered if this would turn out to be the case with Hubert Mingarelli’s book, A Meal In Winter. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was subtly but strikingly different and that, combined with the sparse but beautiful writing and the terrific translation here from Sam Taylor, puts this among those rare books that will stay with me for years after I read its last page.
Three German soldiers, Bauer, Emmerich and the unnamed narrator are hell-bent on one thing in the depths of the countryside, at the height of the Polish winter – survival. And their battle for survival is focused on the most basic of human instincts – warmth, food and shelter. To get themselves out of the task of taking a place in the systematic firing squads set up to shoot row upon row of prisoners they volunteer instead to spend the time roaming the freezing countryside in search of fugitives to bring them back for those same firing squads. They spot a hideout, capture a young Jewish fugitive and begin to take him back to camp, secure in the knowledge that their capture will secure them at least one more day’s reprieve from being hauled into one of the execution squads. On the way back, they take shelter in a disused, abandoned hut and the focus shifts to making a soup for a meal, using food that Bauer has stolen and secreted amidst his kit. They are joined by a Polish hunter who joins their meal in return for contributing his “catch”. From there it is the meal which takes over their thoughts and their talk so that the conversations, arguments and discussions between them are almost all confined purely to their connection to the meal.
Right from the outset the book pulled me away from any risk of thinking “read it all before” because it does two basic things – it moves the narrative to the perspective of one of the three German soldiers, which I’ve not come across before, and despite their appalling intentions of hunting down Jews to bring them back for execution, it does try to humanise the three. While it never attempts any unjustifiable defence of what they are doing, it certainly shifts you into the mind of the rank and file German soldier. It doesn’t come over as an attempt to either sympathise or empathise with what they are doing and why. But it does make understand some of it differently because their actions all about pragmatism as they see it and the emotions and thoughts you read of aren’t about their beliefs or their prejudices or values but are about their gripes, fears, and above all their craving for food and shelter which dominates every thought or sense they have.
So the narrator, Emmerich and Bauer aren’t driven to avoid the firing squad work out of any sense of shame any more than their attempts to capture a fugitive Jew are driven by racial hatred. Instead both acts, and virtually every other action is driven predominantly by what they need to do to survive. And even that isn’t really portrayed as a rationalised, conscious decision but is more simply the instinct to survive. And of course when the three soldiers join the Polish hunter and the captured Jewish civilian at the meal, you see that, in effect, that’s perhaps the thing that binds every single character in the novel – each one of them is ultimately driven by the need for warmth, shelter and food.
That shift in perspective is also maintained in a series of contradictions and tensions between and within the characters. For example, Emmerich, in the midst of the battle for basic survival and the callous brutality of what he sees going on around him in the camp has an overriding worry – he thinks his teenage son back in Germany might have started smoking and he needs the other two to counsel, reassure and advise him on a letter he plans to write to his son to get him to stop smoking. This seems almost bizarre given the context, but Mingarelli uses this and other similar details to constantly pull you back from all that you already know about the Holocaust and immerse you in what are really the mundane, ordinary actions and thoughts of the three soldiers.
And it’s the almost ordinary feel of the book which actually gives it a real air of menace. The fact that something as ordinary as the desire to satisfy hunger can be the predominant feeling when surrounded by the most evil of events is what actually creates that most powerful sense of menace throughout the book. This seemed to me to be a masterstroke by Hubert Mingarelli – he doesn’t shock or horrify the reader by graphically describing the atrocities because we know that already. So instead he describes the emotional detachment of the soldiers in the midst of those atrocities – and that’s what makes it shocking and horrific to read in places. It’s a book which is world’s away from the casually psychotic barbarism of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s Ark and yet this is the most powerful and frightening sense of evil that I’ve had since I read Thomas Kenneally’s story of the Schindler Jews.
Considering this is a book with a real air of menace and cruelty, I still thought it was brilliantly written throughout because its stark simplicity fits the context and the story perfectly. It’s absorbing, powerful prose when he describes the most repellent of things such as the vehement anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Polish hunter and it’s beautiful prose when Mingarelli is describing the landscape.
We went so far without stopping that we couldn’t hear anything – not even the echo of the first shots. As cold as it was, we could bear it for a moment. At one point, we thought we could see the sun, but it turned out to be car headlights.
We did not leave the road. We didn’t see the point in doing what we’d been sent out to do just yet. A little earlier, we’d gone through a Polish village, drab as a filthy iron plate. At that time, all was still asleep, though we could hear hens clucking somewhere. A chicken would have done us the world of good, that was for sure, but we didn’t want to waste time looking for it.
Finally, we saw the pale sun rise. It gave off a little light, but the sky’s colour barely changed. It would be noon before it might begin to warm us. And how much warmth it would provide, it was impossible to say.
In the end this isn’t a book that you enjoy and I don’t think it’s meant to be. But it is a book which will challenge your perceptions, make you think and make you reflect. And so it succeeds in keeping the barbarism and the atrocities fresh which can only be a positive thing. Just as it has done in the years since the war, for the future, the Holocaust needs to remain a constant in our thinking and our literature. A Meal In Winter helps ensure we can continue to remember the Holocaust and continue to learn lessons from it.