A Meal in Winter (Portobello Books 2013) by Hubert Mingarelli is a lovely gem of a novella written in simple language that packs a powerful punch. On one day, in the midst of a European winter, three German soldiers set out on a mission into rural Poland, searching for hidden Jews to capture and bring back to camp. But when they do find ‘one of them’ and are faced with the enormity of what they are expected to do, and the even worse consequences if they refuse to obey, each of them suffers an attack of conscience.
They seek shelter in an abandoned house and prepare a meal together, burning the shack’s few remaining sticks of furniture to stoke the fire. A local Pole arrives – with his vicious anti-Semitism – and adds to the already charged atmosphere. As the men talk about their lives back home – the very ordinariness of their families – this contrasts sharply with their current circumstances and the job they have been tasked to perform. Quite early on, we learn the fate of one of the three men (in an incident set sometime after this winter’s day) and this subtle disclosure makes their current roles and emotions even more shocking and poignant. This slim volume asks big ethical questions about the human condition, our responsibilities, our actions and our moral choices.