Hubert Mingarelli’s The Invisible Land comes billed as the final part of a trilogy linked by the theme of war. I’ve read and reviewed both A Meal in Winter and Four Soldiers, struck by Mingarelli’s exquisite writing, not a description I’d expect to spring to mind when reading about the grimmest of subjects. This third, haunting novella takes us from the last days of the war into its aftermath as a photographer sets out to record images of German villagers.
I’m talking about what we saw there in the days that followed, which gave us just as much sorrow, and I’m also talking about what I couldn’t photograph: the evening, the prayers, the smells and the wind blowing around the scrapheap that burned night and day.
The unnamed photographer arrived in Dinslaken in July 1945, two days after the company he’s attached to liberated a concentration camp. In the two weeks since then, Colonel Collins has visited his room every night, finding some sort of solace in talking to a fellow witness of the camp’s horrors who is not under his command. Not entirely understanding why, the photographer decides he wants to document local German families, asking Collins for the loan of a driver and a car. He’s assigned O’Leary, a raw, recently arrived recruit who’s seen no action and is resented for it by those who have. The photographer quizzes O’Leary for his story and is fobbed off with tales of sleeping in the Lowestoft dunes but little more. They meet with hospitality and kindness, fear and puzzlement as they drive through the beautiful countryside but the photographer remains haunted by what he’s seen at the camp, his simmering rage rising to the surface when the bridegroom of a honeymoon couple refuses to wake his bride to be photographed. Their last evening is spent in a family home when a shared meal reveals why O’Leary is so taciturn about himself.
I photographed three families in a village with ten houses and thousands of lupins. I had never seen so many before. It was as if, here, it rained lupin seeds instead of water.
Mingarelli excels at the pared back, elegantly spare prose that I so admire, translated beautifully here by Sam Taylor. Much is left unsaid for the reader to infer. The horrors of the concentration camp are conveyed as much by mentions of the photographer’s recurrent dream as by the brief descriptions of its liberation. Mingarelli’s beautiful depictions of bucolic peace underline the contrast with these horrors, making them all the more shocking. The photographer and O’Leary share a connection with many of the people they encounter – a young woman eyes up O’Leary, they’re given food, communication is halting but forthcoming and there’s sometimes laughter. These are not monsters but most nights the photographer returns to the camp’s atrocities. Understated yet intensely moving, this is an expertly controlled piece of writing. Taken together, Mingarelli’s three novellas form a compassionate, humane and profound exploration of war and its devastating consequences.
Granta: London 9781783786022 144 pages Hardback