First its worth saying that discussing A Meal in Winter as a group made me appreciate the novel so much more. As well as highlighting the complexity of the dilemma that Mingarelli’s characters faced, talking with everyone helped shed light upon the lengths that people go to survive during a time of war. So again a sincere “thank you” to all who attended.
Right then, we kicked off by going around the group and briefly summarising what we thought of the novel. I believe we all agreed that, while the book might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, A Meal in Winter was a thought-provoking read. Set in Nazi-occupied Poland, Hubert Mingarelli’s short novel follows a group of three soldiers as they conduct a patrol on a bitter winter’s day. Somewhat fortuitously for them, they capture a Jewish fugitive, but on their return trip take refuge in an abandoned house where they cook a meal and begin to contemplate the consequences of their actions.
The novel is short. At only 138 pages, A Meal in Winter is perhaps too slight to be dealing with such a hefty topic. In addition to this, Mingarelli largely focuses on the mundane. The essential dilemma that the soldiers face is addressed towards the end of the book, with the bulk of the text detailing how the soldiers find a hut, how they light a fire, how they prepare some food, how they struggle to keep the fire going, etc. Still, we wondered whether this was done for literary effect – that perhaps focusing on the task in hand helped bury the underlying torment that the soldiers were feeling?
But it didn’t take long for us to get to the tougher issues. At one point in the novel, one solider (Bauer) asks the question “which one of us is the best?”. He does this before revealing that he’d cunningly stole some food which he then donates to the group’s lunch. Yet I thought that Bauer’s statement actually raised the question: which of the soldiers was the most moral? Although Bauer donates the food and even later invites their prisoner to join them, he seems to be the most set on delivering the prisoner back to camp. Emmerich, another of the soldiers, conversely argues that they should free the prisoner (led by his concern that his moral comeuppance will be dealt upon his son). The third soldier, the nameless narrator, chews over the decision before ultimately siding with Bauer. Arguments were offered for all three, but I think our group came to the conclusion that none of us were really in any position to cast judgement on any of them.
We rounded up our meeting by comparing two book reviews I’d found online. The first took a more stern approach, observing how Mingarelli made it difficult to connect with the characters. Instead they argued that soldiers were: “poor souls who have been forced into murdering people. Eye roll. The only attempt of compassion our narrator shows is when he talks about feeling sorry for the victim’s mothers, it feels so forced and sudden, it’s just not honest”. The second review took a more sympathetic approach, on the other hand, and praised how tangible and relatable the dilemma was: “The men in this story seem so ordinary that they really could have been me in a life not so long ago”. I think all of us book clubbers found ourselves having more in common with the second (no matter how much they may have agreed with the first when the meeting began!). So with all that, we gave in our scores – granting A Meal in Winter an impressive 7.6.
Adam, Carnegie Library book group