Three German soldiers – Bauer, Emmerich and an unnamed narrator – stride out into the frigid Polish winter, their minds on keeping warm and their empty stomachs. They’ve missed breakfast, determined to avoid the daily round of executions by volunteering to hunt down Jews and bring them back to the camp. Emmerich frets about his son, enlisting the help of the other two to try to get him to stop smoking. Bauer occasionally bellows out advice while our unnamed narrator muses on last night’s dream of the three of them riding on a tram. Despite the constant gnawing hunger, the dangerous numbing cold anything is better than serving another turn as executioner. When Emmerich spots signs of a hideout, the three flush out a young Jewish man, a prize which will ensure that they will be sent out to hunt again tomorrow rather than man the firing squad. Bauer reveals that he’s stolen enough food to make soup and spotting an abandoned cottage they set about lighting a fire, interrupted by the arrival of a Polish hunter and his dog. What ensues frays the bonds between the three soldiers, opening divisions between them and forcing them to face the moral dilemma of what to do with their captive.
This short, spare novella will take you little more than two or three hours to read but it will remain in your thoughts for some time. Hubert Mingarelli’s prose, expertly translated by novelist Sam Taylor, is stark and bare: no words wasted on distracting descriptions. We learn that the soldiers no longer share their dreams so often filled with the horrors they’ve witnessed. Hunger and cold are viscerally described. Bauer and our narrator treat Emmerich’s anxiety with touching concern. The narrator hates the little maternal touches he finds in many of his quarry – an embroidered snowflake on a cap, a ribbon – bringing him face to face with their humanity. We humans long to see the world in black and white – it makes things so much easier – but the genius of Mingarelli’s compassionate novel is to show ordinary German soldiers, horrified by what they have seen and done, trying to find ways of coping while managing to retain their humanity. It’s a triumph for both the novelist and the translator.
Almost as soon as I started reading A Meal in Winter I thought of Richard Bausch’s Peace, another slim, understated novel that speaks of the horrors of war. This time three American soldiers pick their way down a mountainside in the freezing cold after their sergeant has murdered a young woman in the final days of the Second World War. We’re about to be deluged with novels about the First World War given next year’s commemorations but I wondered if anyone had any recommendations of novels that have already stood the test of time. Birdsong, The Ghost Road and All Quiet on the Western Front spring to mind. Anyone know of any others?