HUbert Mingarelli, who died at the age of 64 at the beginning of this year, was an immensely productive writer (and screenwriter) and at the same time a master of a minimalist style of writing that has nothing artificial and, precisely in its conciseness, avoids everything that is vague and hits exactly the point. This minimalism has allowed Mingarelli time and again to tell of extreme situations or even from the middle of hell without pathos, as in his novel “Un repas en hiver”, which was finally published in France in 2012, has now finally been translated into German.
One has to imagine hell here as a place of banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt described it in her Eichmann book. It is located in Poland, in a harsh winter of the early years of World War II. As is well known, the attack on Poland began the war of extermination against Jews and members of “inferior peoples”, in which the “decent” German Wehrmacht was involved from the beginning. Mingarelli’s novel tells of an attempt by three German soldiers to escape hell, at least temporarily, which, as one suspects, cannot succeed because this hell is a closed space like in Beckett’s “Endgame”.
Three soldiers want to escape hell
Specifically, the three of them – an unnamed first-person narrator and his two comrades Emmerich and Bauer, who have evidently formed a closely related trio for some time – are about escaping the mass shootings, with which their unit is mainly entrusted, and with the less burdensome task to be assigned to track down Jews “only” and to take them prisoner.
They get this job from their commanding officer, who, unlike their immediate superior, Lieutenant Graaf, is portrayed as an old-school officer. Before dawn they set off: “The road was harder than stone. We marched for a long time, without a break, in the cold, under the frozen sky, but with a slight feeling of happiness. “
When day broke, they went so far that “nothing could be heard, not even the echo of the first shooting”. The most sensitive of them, Emmerich, whose whole concern is with his son at home, finally finds a young Jew in the forest who has been hiding in a hole in the ground. “We no longer had the right to kill them right where we found them. At least one officer had to be present as a witness. “
“He spoke in the universal language of malice”
Outside the forest, the three and their prisoner discover an abandoned house, and it is here that preparations begin for the meal that gives the novel its title. The chimney has to be freed from a dead cat that is clogging the flue; since there is no coal to be found, a large part of the furniture has to be chopped up and burned, and the ingredients, the farmer from the kitchen of the Unity called to make soup. Meanwhile, the young Jew is locked in the pantry. There is a knock and a Polish hunter and his dog, whom the narrator saw outside, enter the house. With potato schnapps he is the fourth eater to buy his way into the group.
Then the moment comes when the entire constellation changes. The Pole discovers the Jew through the half-open crack in the pantry door. His whole behavior changes. “He opened his toothless mouth and pursed his lips in a hideous smile, like the mouth of a dead fish … He spoke in the universal language of malice and shook his head just as maliciously.”
The message is clear: at this moment, the Pole’s passionate hatred of Jews triumphs over the banality of evil represented by three soldiers. At the latest here, without Mingarelli having to leave his minimalism, he succeeds in taking the reader on the side of the Wehrmacht soldiers, even making them appear temporarily innocent.
One alone cannot redeem anyone
But of course there are no innocent people in Hell. Emmerich’s idea of letting go of the young Jew – about the same age as his son – in order to be exempt from guilt, with foresight for later, is also rejected. One alone, if one calculates it, cannot redeem anyone. Hell is a closed society in which you have to find your place. “We took him to the company, and the next day they let us go again at dawn, before the first shooting.”
Mingarelli, who received the prestigious Prix Médicis for “Quatre Soldats” in 2003, has hardly been translated into German, in contrast to the English-speaking market. It would be commendable if the ars vivendi publishing house could finally make further titles by this author, who was much too little noticed during his lifetime, again in Elmar Tannert’s excellent translation, available to the German public.