Book Club: In conversation with Hubert Mingarelli
A Meal in Winter is set during World War Two but takes a different perspective on the war by telling the story through the eyes of the German soldiers. Why did you choose to write from this perspective?
I can’t say if this novel is different from other novels about World War Two, but I think that speaking from the point of view of the executioners and those who lost is more unusual than speaking from that of the victors.
A relationship between a father and a son may change according to the circumstances, but it will never disappear.
In A Meal in Winter you portray the German soldiers – the oppressors – as negatively affected by their participation in the war. Why did you choose to portray them like this and how did you get into the mindset?
Everything is always affected by war. Relationships between everybody are affected, regardless of sex, nationality, or age. Of course, I say this without having lived through a war. I have no experience of that and all I’m trying to tell in my stories is what I feel.
Your novel is set in Poland and includes only German and Polish characters. Do you think that A Meal in Winter is relevant to French and British readers despite the Eastern European setting?
I don’t know if my book is any good, but I do know that you don’t need to be Polish or German to be interested in what happened during this conflict. What happened crossed national borders and touched everybody.
The relationship between Emmerich and his son is a prominent conversation topic between the three German soldiers. What did you set out to explore through this father-son relationship?
A relationship between a father and a son may change according to the circumstances, but it will never disappear. In this novel it changes in such a strange and significant way because of the distance between them. And, it’s an obvious thing to say, but even willing executioners and involuntary killers have children.
Why did you choose to narrate A Meal in Winter from the perspective of a nameless German soldier?
Since he’s the one who’s telling us the story, I didn’t feel the need to name him. And this way, it’s possible for me to imagine that he’s me, and for others to feel that he is them, too.
The three soldiers are not depicted as wholly evil characters despite their participation in the Nazi regime. Have you been criticised for producing a more nuanced view on ordinary Germans’ role in the Nazi regime?
No, I’ve never had a single criticism on that front. Although, I was once violently reproached for having chosen to portray a very anti-Semitic Polish character.
Why did you introduce the Polish character into the novel? And to what extent is he as morally reprehensible as the German soldiers?
I think he’s just as reprehensible as the German soldiers. He epitomises everything that caused this war, just as the three soldiers are the weapons of war.
The question that stayed with me the whole time I was writing this story was: what about me, would I have obeyed orders or refused?
Why did you use a meal shared between the German soldiers, the Pole and the captured Jew as the centrepiece of your story?
A meal is a moment of harmony, if all goes well. But it can also be a moment of confrontation. In this novel, I think it’s both of these things. And above all, I wanted to make this meal a sort of truce. And often after a truce, real life starts up again.
Throughout the novel you make references to the soldier’s dreams as well as a surreal flash-forward sequence to the soldiers in Galacia. Why did you include this in the novel?
In almost all of my novels, I describe my characters’ dreams. They’re really important to them, because they’re often quite introverted people. It’s through their dreams that I try to understand what makes them tick.
There is a language barrier between the German soldiers and the Pole and the Jew, yet the interactions between the men are extremely poignant. A parallel can be drawn with your novel, which is sparse yet powerful. Why did you choose to leave so much unsaid?
I have a feeling that life is generally made up of what’s unspoken. And in my novels, I always try not to explain things too much, and to give the reader the chance to form their own opinion.
A Meal in Winter explores the concept of good and evil. Do you think there are moral absolutes?
Of course there are moral absolutes, and thank goodness. Good and evil exist, but talking about it doesn’t mean that I’m a better person than anyone else. I’m talking about it, that’s all. The question that stayed with me the whole time I was writing this story was: what about me, would I have obeyed orders or refused?
What, if anything, can we learn from reading World War Two novels? What lesson would you like readers of A Meal in Winter to take away from the novel?
I never ask myself the question of what a reader will take from my books. That would be like saying I had a lesson to impart. And I’ve never done that in my life. I’m just an author!