A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (Un repas en hiver, 2012) translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2013) The New Press (2016) 138 pp
A Meal in Winter was shortlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and it didn’t seem to fare well with the shadow jury that year. The short “Novel of World War II” is finally hitting the United States in a lovely small hardback edition from The New Press, and I really enjoyed it and, just as importantly, was challenged by it. I think it is a case where a perfectly good book suffers from being listed for a prize like the IFFP where people hope to find world literature masterpieces. But not all books are written with that intent and need not ascend those heights to be quietly powerful and worthwhile.
Here we have three German soldiers — Bauer, Emmerich, and our narrator — who have been broken down to the point they cannot see beyond the next few hours. All of their energy is spent trying to make even just one moment in the next few hours give some modicum of pleasure, some slight release.
When I turned around, there was smoke floating from the chimney. The sight lifted my heart. Added to the fact that we had avoided the shootings and that there had been no wind since the morning, it was no exaggeration to say that this had been a good day.
These three soldiers are away from camp on this “good day.” It is a bitter cold winter day, and they’ve been out since before breakfast. They volunteered to do this. First, freedom from their brutal leaders is always welcome. Second, in the morning the soldiers convene to shoot the prisoners — the book only mentions that they are Jews once or twice — and they’re tired of doing this. They’re too run down to articulate their reasoning as anything other than the fact that shooting people makes them feel, in some way, even more run down.
The complex psychology is explored in simple language, the narrator explaining as best he can why he feels so much hatred with the act.
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. Afterwards I forgot about them, but in the moment they pierced me and I suffered for the mothers who had, once, gone to so much effort. And then, because of this suffering they caused me, I hated them too. And the more I suffered for them, the more I hated them.
And if you want to know more, my hatred knew no bounds when they were not there to hug their darlings tightly to their breasts while I killed them. Once, they had embroidered a snowflake on their hat or tied a ribbon in their hair, but where were they when I was killing them?
It’s the humanity of their victims that strikes them, that reminds them of what they’re doing, that brings it all so much closer their own lives. Nevertheless, they do what they can to keep their victims far, and to look for simpler pleasures. In fact, they are out of camp on this day for one purpose: to find more Jews to be executed the next day. And this “good day” has become even better: they’ve found one.
Bringing one back meant we would have the right to go out searching again. Nobody would be giving us evil looks. Even Graaf would not be able to find anything to reproach. Tomorrow morning, we would be able to walk past him without lowering our gaze. Unlike today, we would even be able to wait for the kitchen to open so we could get our rations. We would be entitled to all of that tomorrow.
How they have shut down their moral compass in order to accomplish a pinprick of light in this world of darkness is devastating.
The men find the young Jewish boy rather early on, but they need to take a break to eat and warm up in an abandoned home. They go through extensive struggles to enjoy one warm meal, and the Jewish boy is there the whole time. It’s late in the novel that one of them finally voices his desire to let the boy go:
‘I’m telling you, Bauer. One day, I will have need of him. I would rather kill some tomorrow if it means I’ll be able to remember this one when I need to.’
‘No, not me. One wouldn’t be enough.’
With Emmerich wanting to let the boy go even if it means he’ll have to kill more the very next morning, and Bauer wanting to take the boy back because it means they won’t, the narrator is the one who holds the deciding vote.
I was worried throughout about how the book would handle the ultimate decision, thinking how awful it would be if they did take the boy back to camp to be shot and yet thinking how awful the book would be if it avoided that darkness with some false light at the end. Even after a lot of thought and contemplation, the book’s ending surprised me by not only fitting but also by not letting readers either suffer some false indignation for the violence or feel some false sense of hope for a good act. Rather, the book kept to its exploration of what these men are navigating day in and day out.
The relatively simple words, though often conveying complex thoughts, also supports rather complex explorations. Sam Jordan is an accomplished translator, and I felt the sentences were simple on the surface while acting as some kind of barrier to the torments ripping through these soldiers’ psyche.
For folks who suffer from World War II novel fatigue, which I think is more of a fatigue with the ways authors use World War II, I’d like to say that A Meal in Winter sets out to do something rather unique, and through structure and writing accomplishes just what it set out to do.