Tag Archives: Sam Taylor

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.

Books to Look Out for in October 2018

Cover imageOctober’s the month in which the big literary guns are rolled out in the battle for our Christmas present lists although the publicity campaign for Sarah Perry’s Melmoth has already been in full swing for months. Helen Franklin is hiding from an unforgivable act she committed twenty years ago. Her sheltered life is threatened by the discovery of a manuscript telling a story in which the mythic figure of Melmoth frequently appears, complete with unblinking eyes and bleeding feet. The novel’s described by the publishers as ‘a profound, ambitiously realised work of fiction which asks fundamental questions about guilt, forgiveness, moral reckoning and how we come to terms with our actions in a conflicted world’ and having read it, I’d say they’re right. The Essex Serpent is a hard act to follow but Perry’s more than met expectations with this one.

I finally got around to reading Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans earlier this year and enjoyed it very much. He’s a writer who knows how to spin a good yarn which raises hopes for The House on Vesper Sands. Set in a snowy London in 1893, its sounds like a second pleasing slice of Gothic involving a man whose one-time love is found stretched out in front of an altar, a seamstress with a message stitched into her skin and her employer who disappears into the night, all under the watchful eye of a society columnist keen for a real story.

Eoin McNamee’s The Vogue sounds as if it may also have a foot in Gothic territory or perhaps that’s just the slightly opaque blurb. In 1944, two teenagers silently dance in an aerodrome. She draws the outlines of their footwork in eyebrow pencil; he loses their bet. Decades later, a body is found. ‘Set against an eerie landscape, awash with secrets, The Vogue is a grimly poetic dance through the intertwined stories of a deeply religious community, an abandoned military base, and a long-shuttered children’s Care Home’ say the publishers promisingly.Cover image

Season Butler’s Cygnet sees a young girl, stranded on an island seemingly abandoned by her parents. Swan Island is home to an ageing separatist community who have turned their back on the mainland to create their own haven and have no wish to have their carefully constructed idyll shattered by an incomer, let alone a young one. ‘Cygnet is the story of a young woman battling against the thrashing waves of loneliness and depression, and how she learns to find hope, laughter and her own voice in a world that’s crumbling around her’ according to the publishers. This one could go either way but it’s an interesting premise.

Something that could also be said Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered which intertwines the stories of Willa Knox who is grappling with a host of domestic problems in 2016, and schoolteacher Thatcher Greenwood whose ambitions to teach Darwinism in 1871 are met with obdurate opposition in the town. ‘A testament to both the resilience and persistent myopia of the human condition, Unsheltered explores the foundations we build in life, spanning time and place to give us all a clearer look at those around us, and perhaps ourselves’ say the publishers, rather ambitiously comparing it with George Eliot’s work. I prefer Kingsolver’s earlier fiction to her more recent novels.

I’m much more confident about Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, described by Hilary Mantel as ‘a small miracle’. The titular soldiers set up camp in a forest close to the Romanian frontline of the Russian Civil War in the winter of 1919. They fill a lull in the fighting, trying to forget the horrors they’ve seen, enjoying a brief freedom and the beauty of their surroundings. ‘Tightly focused and simply told, this is a story of friendship and the fragments of happiness that can illuminate the darkness of war’ say the publishers. The spare prose of Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter made a lasting impression on me when I read it five years ago

Cover image Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore sounds wacky enough to please even the most ardent fan. A portrait painter discovers a strange painting in the attic of a famous artist, opening a Pandora’s box in the process. To close it he must do all manner of things involving ‘a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.  A tour de force of love and loneliness, war and art – as well as a loving homage to The Great GatsbyKilling Commendatore is a stunning work of imagination from one of our greatest writers’ say the publishers. Can’t wait.

That’s it for October’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…

Books to Look Out For in November 2015: Part 2

Cover imageThe second instalment of November goodies begins with a debut – Sloane Crosley’s The Clasp – although you may already know her from the delightfully named set of essays I Was Told There’d be Cake. Crosley’s novel follows a set of college friends as they make their way in the big wide world of jobs, romantic entanglements and friendships. This structure is catnip for me as regular visitors to this blog may have already noticed. Michael Chabon likes it too, apparently

Lorna Gibb’s A Ghost’s Story is just the sort of title publishers bring out for Christmas. Often they’re to be avoided like the plague but Gibb’s novel sounds intriguing. The Katie King spirit was famous in the 19th and 20th centuries for her appearances at séances and this is her fictionalised autobiography, ‘an examination of belief and a spectacular insight into what lies on the other side’, apparently. It’s also the story of a scholar who attempts to understand the Katie phenomenon. If Gibb manages to pull it off this could be a wonderfully original novel. We’ll see.Cover image

In Karine Tuil’s The Age of Reinvention successful Manhattan attorney Sam Tahar has built his life on a lie. The son of a Tunisian living in Paris, Tahar threw off his impoverished background making friends with a Jewish student at law school until they both conceived a passion for the same woman. When Nina chose Samuel, Tahar took off for America assuming Samuel’s identity. Many years later the three meet again with disastrous consequences. Tuil’s novel was a Prix Goncourt finalist and sounds well worth a look.

Set in Copenhagen just before the 2008 crash Martin Kongstad’s Am I Cold follows food critic Mikkel Vallin. Divorced, deserted by his girlfriend, sacked and unhappily middle-aged, he’s sworn off fidelity and his new girlfriend agrees. All seems fine and dandy until Vallin thinks he may be falling in love. Kongstad’s ‘debut turns the last, glorious, debauched days of pre-crash decadence into a wild satire of modern life’ Cover imagesay his publishers and if it lives up to that billing it could be very entertaining.

Having said so many times that I’m not a short story fan, here I am again including another set. This one’s from Shena Mackay many of whose novels I’ve enjoyed, particularly The Orchard on Fire which was shortlisted for the Booker way back in 1996. Her settings are often suburban, sometimes surreal and she has a fine line in dark humour all of which makes this collection something to look forward to.

That’s it for November hardbacks. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more substantial synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with part one it’s here.