Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (transl. Sam Taylor): War and peace

Cover imageI reviewed Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter here quite some time ago now but it’s stayed with me. Its premise is simple – three German Second World War soldiers share a bowl of soup in an abandoned hut and are interrupted by a Polish hunter – but its exploration of the horrors of war is extraordinarily powerful. First published in French in 2003, Four Soldiers explores similar themes this time against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War in 1919.

A company of Red Army soldiers in retreat from the Romanians is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of the soldiers form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, unofficially led by Pavel. Kyabine is the brawn of the group, big strong and obsessed with tobacco. Sifra is quiet and diffident, adept enough to reassemble his rifle blindfolded, but it is to Benia that Pavel turns for consolation each night when his nightmare recurs. With the advent of spring, they’re ordered to burn their hut where they’ve played so many games of dice, gambling away the tobacco which Pavel finds ways of passing back to Kyabine, kissing the watch containing the picture of a woman with which they each takes a turn to sleep. They stumble upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days. A young boy is assigned to the four, at first regarded with suspicion, then enfolded into their friendship. As spring wears on the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace.

A few months ago, I mentioned that I’d been reading more novellas this year, remarking on how powerful they can be: Four Soldiers is a perfect example. Told through Benia’s voice in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly and compassionately captures the comradeship of soldiers who form a deep bond of fellowship, enjoying a brief period of peace while shutting out the inevitability of what lies ahead. His writing is spare, stripped of any ornamentation and all the more evocative for it:

The officers stopped to look behind them, hands shielding their eyes from the sun, as if they’d forgotten something.

 Barely had we finished drinking that tea before we became nostalgic for it.

I was filled with emotion because each one of us was in his place and also because it seemed to me that instant that each of us was away from the winter in the forest. And that each of us was also far away from the war that was going to start up again because the winter was over.

The end is quietly devastating. While I can happily enjoy a well spun, chunky yarn  – Little being a case in point – it’s hard to beat the punch of a carefully honed novella.

22 thoughts on “Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (transl. Sam Taylor): War and peace”

  1. Mingarelli seems fascinated by the way conflict shapes our personality even when we are ‘at rest’ during war or other periods of conflict. I also feel he questions notions of masculinity, especially as it relates to fighting for the fatherland. And he does it in a very quiet, understated fashion, which makes you think about it long after you’ve read the book.

    1. It’s that quiet understatement that made A Meal in Winter so striking for me, echoed in Four Soldiers. The poignancy of the men’s enjoyment of nature and their comradeship overshadowed by the knowledge that this is merely a brief hiatus is beautifully conveyed. It’s a triumph.

  2. I’m. It certain this is for me, but I do understand the line about being nostalgic for tea. Of course, I am in nothing like their position, but there are many things I am not allowed to eat and others I can only indulge in very very sparingly. That line really rings true.

  3. Sometimes short novels or novellas can be more powerful than a longer work. This seems like that kind of novella. The relationships of these characters so obviously shaped by war sounds very poignant

  4. Like you, I found A Meal in Winter very powerful and haunting, definitely a story that lingered in the mind. This new one sounds in a similar vein, both thematically and stylistically. Funnily enough, it caught my eye yesterday as I was passing the Marylebone branch of Daunt Books. They’ve actually devoted a whole window display to this book, and very effective it looks too.

    1. I’m so pleased to hear that, Jacqui. One of my favourite shops, too. Yes, the theme is similar in that it explores the consequences of war but the angle is unusual, looking at the intensity of a brief respite and the sad inevitability of resuming hostilities. I think you’d like it.

      1. I went to Daunt Books today & very nearly bought this, but it sounded too similar to ‘Peace’ by Richard Bausch so decided against it. Maybe I’ll just have to go back now.

        1. Funnily enough it was A Meal in Winter that reminded me a little of Peace. I think you’d like this, Kim, not that you need a reason for a return visit to Daunts, I’m sure!

  5. I also have found myself reading more novellas — seeking them out — and I’m finding them more in translated works than originals published in the States. Such as the one you mention in this post, “A Meal in Winter”. Other examples Andrei Makine’s “Music of a Life” and Dominique Fortier’s “The Island of Books”. It’s refreshing to get drawn into a story you know won’t take days/weeks to read but that is just as powerful and memorable in emotion, intrigue or insight. Maybe it’s the spare prose, which is an art.

    1. I think you’ve nailed it with your remark about sparse prose. No words wasted, and all the better for it. Thanks for your mentions of Makine and Fortier. I’ll check them out.

  6. And so often they are whop-you-in-the-gut sad, aren’t they. *sigh* This sounds amazing though. I like the quotation about shading eyes and forgetting: I can imagine that scene.

  7. What a great post, sparking such interesting comments. The books you highlight, Susan, as well as the ones you have prompted others to mention all sound absolutely fascinating.

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