The Holocaust is a constant presence in literature, prompting a steady stream of new books. Without doubt, it is an extreme of modern history from which we must continue to learn. At the same time it can seem that there is little left of substance to say about it. Hubert Mingarelli gives the lie to this. His subject matter is supremely dark, but against all the odds, he manages to offer us a positive message.
His unnamed narrator is one of three German soldiers. In a bitter Polish winter they hunt down a Jewish man. Their prey has gone to ground inside a hole hidden in a forest, but the fires he lights give him away. His captors are taking him away to be shot, when they chance upon an abandoned cottage and decide to stop to eat.
Everyone is half-starved and food becomes the heart of the narrative. The soldiers smash furniture and fittings for firewood. They begin to make soup from simple ingredients, cornmeal and salami prominent among them, to consume with their meagre ration of bread. Their actions become imbued with ritual overtones.
A Pole seeks shelter from the snow. Tension rises as he harangues the Jew with vituperative anti-Semitism. The soldiers themselves are sick of killing. They volunteered to hunt Jews, because then it falls to others to shoot them back at the camp. The trio are haunted by nightmares which they can never shake off. Part of the horror of their predicament is not knowing when it is to end.
Soon after the killings began one of the three, Emmerich, became plagued by anxieties over the welfare of his son. Today, he is worried that his son will start smoking. His comrades try to assuage his fears. Meanwhile, the Jew turns out to be surprisingly young. The question arises of whether the soldiers should share their soup with him.
The moral complexity of the story contrasts with its straightforward delivery. Much of Mingarelli’s reputation in France rests on his writing for young adults. Certainly, his spare language is well suited to this luminous tale. In the short space he allocates himself – his novel is not greatly above novella length – he accomplishes a great deal. In particular, he pulls off the astounding feat of making us feel sorry for the soldiers, not least because it is made plain we cannot know what we would do.
This is the most moving book I have read for a long time. Many of us experience dreams in which we commit murder, only to wake with relief. It is not easy to recognise that those who carry out genocide are not so different to everyone else, but Mingarelli shows us that our humanity survives in the most unlikely of circumstances.