I 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.