Miha Mazzini Crumbs, translated by Maja Visenjak-Limon (Freight, 2014)
by Emilie Anderson
Crumbs is the best-selling novel in what is now known as Slovenia, published just before the country’s independence from Yugoslavia almost 25 years ago. Its first appearance in English – in a translation by Maja Visenjak-Limon – coincides with the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum, and the novel’s form of satirical realism foregrounds a collection of characters engaged with questions of self-determination that speak to the current debate about Scotland’s future.
Crumbs tells the story of the monotonous life of a small factory town, where Egon finds himself “knee-deep in the well-known novels of Social Realism.” The restrictive tenets of this literary form are mirrored by the restrictions felt by Egon and his comrades in their day-to-day lives; they feel particularly confined by government rules implemented in their local pub. If the disjointed plot reflects the deterioration of Yugoslavia in the years before Slovenia gained its independence, in depicting events between 1980 and 1990 the novel also tracks the twin moves toward self-determination and capitalism during the period. Nonetheless, while Egon’s main ambition involves getting hold of a Cartier perfume, he rails at the aestheticisation of poverty. The decision by some to grow their own vegetables and live a less lavish life in a disreputable area is seen as a capitalistic lifestyle choice: “THIS ISN’T POVERTY. THIS IS A WAY OF LIFE.”
Mazzini depicts Egon’s inability to find meaning – caught between the collapse of communism and the rise of capitalism – through black comedy, which takes the edge off of the harsh political realities he finds himself experiencing: clever enough to escape certain conventions, Egon remains unable, ironically, to take full control of his life. At one point in the novel, Egon fails to recognise his own surroundings and begins to question his existence, which he refers to as a “Loss of the self.” The question of “who do you think you are?” is asked of other characters in the book, too. Drinking becomes a major part of the novel, its recurrence emerging out of a disparity between present realities and dreams. If Ibro wishes for a life with a woman he is unable to communicate with, Salim hopes for a life with a famous actress, and Poet dreams of publication, Crumbs‘ important question is whether these ambitions are unattainable and laughable or whether they are representative of individuals looking for an identity within a changing nation. Mazzini puts their existential plight into the lyrics of a song – “All the world must not be wrong/ Must be me I don’t belong…” – and suggests that humour can be a bulwark against doubt and disappointment.
Crumbs had a very positive reception in Slovenia, a nation that has undertaken and come out of a process of independence. In September, Scotland is due to vote in its own independence referendum, and Mazzini’s book may find a new audience in this country among those interested in the relationship between nation, identity, and art. Mazzini’s description of Egon’s attempt to find his way among a “sea of bodies” suggests that individual identity, and ‘finding one’s place,’ is always also a question of societal – even national – identity. Indeed, Mazzini suggests that with independence came new symbols and new identities for Slovenia and its citizens; personal change and social change are linked. While Crumbs also deals with more prosaic political matters – the rising cost of living and the minimum wage – Mazzini always connects these questions with larger philosophical ones. While a bigger income might allow his characters to get closer to their dreams, a greater cost might be paid in rising individualism, materialism and consumerism.
If Slovenia has passed the hurdles (actual or otherwise) perceived to be currently faced by Scotland – it was admitted to the European Union on 15th January 1992 – with the lowering of the voting age for September’s referendum, Crumbs might speak to a younger readership who share the sense – in very vivid ways – that, as Mazzini puts it, “at twenty-two there’s nothing to decide anymore. You’ve got to decide during puberty … After that everything else is self-delusion.” They might also appreciate the interweaving of national and personal searches for identity. Egon reflects towards the end of the noveI that he has become “painfully aware of the fact that the air around me was full of words and deeds, which had got trapped between the hills and which ruled and suffocated the people, who were too weak to lead their own lives.”
Mazzini successfully encapsulates the difficulties people have in finding the (notion of the) ”self” within a society undergoing radical change. Egon recognises the need to escape from the distortions of advertising and the media and to entertain a curiosity beyond the immediate. As Mazzini suggests, to actively have to make decisions may not be a drudgery but rather a responsibility to embrace.