This book felt so similar to another of Mingarelli’s books that I had read, Four Soldiers (see my review here) that I had to go back to check to see if it was a sequel, or whether indeed I was inadvertently re-reading a book I had read earlier. But no, this is a different book, dealing with soldiers from a different country, who have fought in a different war. The sameness of Mingarelli’s probing of the effects of war on the men who fight is, in itself, a commentary on the universality and tragedy of war.
Once again, this is only a small book of 139 pages. It is set in the days of July 1945 in Germany, after the fighting has stopped. We know nothing of the war that the unnamed narrator, a British soldier, has had. But now, after being present after the liberation of a Nazi labour camp, he decides that he wants to photograph German families outside their homes. He approaches his colonel, who, like him is haunted by the sights he saw in the camp. When he requests a car and a driver, in order to take his photos, the colonel asks him why. He cannot answer. When a young driver, O’Leary, is assigned to him, he asks him as well.
I hesitated, and said: ‘My work, O’Leary. I’m going to take photographs’.p.28
These are not benign photographs. The narrator and O’Leary drive into the countryside, not really sure of where they are going, soldiers from the victor’s side travelling through what had been, until a few weeks earlier, enemy territory. Often they demand food, as well as the photographs, and many of the photographs are taken at gunpoint. I really can’t imagine that these would be ‘happy snaps’. I’m sure that the subjects were resentful, hateful, frightened and bemused. At one house, the narrator demands that a new husband wake his wife on the morning after their wedding, so that he can take their photograph. This is not art: it is a power relationship.
I don’t think that our narrator knows why he wants to take these photographs, and neither does O’Leary. He is a young soldier, originally with the Signals Corps, who arrived to fight just as the war finished. He has his secrets too, but is unwilling to divulge them with the narrator. There is a dreamlike quality to their journey, but it’s more like waking from a nightmare. Neither man pushes the other for any explanation, and so we as readers are none the wiser either. I’m not quite sure that I took the meaning from the ending, but it works well enough for me.
I read from the back cover that Mingarelli died during 2020. Apparently he has written numerous novels, but he is best known in English for this collection of small novels comprising A Meal in Winter (longlisted for the Booker in 2019), Four Soldiers and now this one. It’s interesting that the front cover of each identifies it as ‘A Novel’, despite their short length, and I wonder what the effect would be on the reader to have them bound within the one volume. With two set in Germany and one in Russia, amongst German, Russian and now English soldiers each book explores the question of what war does to a soldier when the immediate rush of adrenaline subsides.
My rating: 7.5
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: Lisa Hill’s recent review on ANZLitlovers https://anzlitlovers.com/2021/03/27/the-invisible-land-by-hubert-mingarelli-translated-by-sam-taylor/