A Literature of Independence: Miha Mazzini
The republication of Miha Mazzini's Crumbs, a novel about individual pursuits set against the backdrop of a nation driving for independence, could prove more timely than ever. We speak to the author about navigating self-determination
Crumbs is the best-ever selling novel in Yugoslavia, particularly noteworthy for being lauded by both the controlling governmental forces when it was first published in 1987, and the opposition movement who sought an independent Slovenia. The story follows the keenly intelligent Egon, as he seeks to escape not the poverty of the unnamed foundry town he inhabits, but an existence without his beloved and expensive fragrance of choice, Cartier Pour Homme.
Forging alliances among the ethnically and religiously diverse population of the town, Egon works schemes and swindles the unfortunate as he boozes and womanises his way to another bottle of fragrance, while in the background a nation is on the cusp of self-determination. His friends, Salem and Ibro, work at the factory and, almost 30 years on, it is Salem's story – the worker's story – Mazzini wants to focus upon when we speak to him.
Reflecting on the book now, do you think you can pinpoint why it struck such a chord?
It's a story about an immigrant worker who goes to the cinema and falls in love with the film star. He knows he's nobody and he must get famous to approach her. Rereading it now, it struck me how contemporary the story still is. Yearning for a status is built in us and, while a peasant in the Middle Ages knew the world is set and unchangeable and he will never be royalty, nowadays our status sensors are getting more and more frustrated. Celebrities are the new royalty and they're everywhere around us, and how they became what they are, it's not exactly clear. There are no set rules how to get famous; we can't even remember for most of the celebrities how they did it. Fame is split from the deed, a wondrous achievement.
For someone relatively ignorant of the history of Slovenia and Yugoslavia, the novel feels like a window into a world we know so little about. We want to feel the town of the story is representative of that mixed culture at that point in time. Would you agree with that?
They built the factory, imported workers from everywhere and put them in those ugly blocks of apartments, the dispersed great grey walls still standing all over ex-socialistic countries. The cultures were mixed, but there was no melting pot in the works, because there was nothing to melt into. With economic troubles everything started falling apart, because there was no unifying culture to bond the nations. When I was writing this novel, I didn't intend to paint a bigger scene; but somehow, if the story is good, you always do (it took me years to realise this).
“Being under foreign rule for a long time leaves every nation with some universal traits” – Miha Mazzini
Egon is one of those characters the reader is immediately on board with. Just like the women in his life, we are charmed by his casual detachment and wit in the face of some grim realities. Was there an element of wish fulfilment in that, both for yourself and for young people in Slovenia at the time?
Egon is the man who arranges things – a manipulator – and I wanted him exactly like that. Yes, wish fulfilment for sure, but that was the ideal of the time and place: the system wanted to take care of everything but in reality didn't provide for anything. You have to arrange for just everything, starting with your morning coffee (smuggled from Austria or Italy). Egon wants a perfume, but not just buying it, he wants to manipulate the people to buy it for him – a bastard.
The other inhabitants of the town are just as fascinating – filled with humour and melancholy, stifled ambition, thrown around by history. Looking back on writing the book now, what did these characters mean to you?
I was taking small pieces of reality, of real people and real events and I was combining it into something new. I didn't want to offend anybody and I was extremely cautious not to make the story autobiographical in any sense. So, I made up most of the events and persons. Years after the publication, I went to my hometown and I was sitting at the small bar where we used to sit (and those guys were still there, and probably still are) and people around me were reminiscing about the events I was sure I invented. My face must have been so surprised that one of them whispered in my ear: 'Don't worry. It didn't happen. We just took Crumbs and made it our own glorious past to tell to the younger generations.'
Do you feel there are any parallels to be drawn between Scotland, which is pondering a greater degree of self-determination, and the Slovenia you depict in the book?
Being under foreign rule for a long time leaves every nation with some universal traits, I think. First, probably, is at least slightly higher narcissism: 'What could we have done if there would be no (put the name of the foreign rulers here)?' Second: the convenient scapegoat is always at hand: 'It would work out fine if those stupid [put the name here] wouldn't fuck everything up.'
After the country gains independence, there comes a time of interregnum – one ruler gone, the other still not fully functioning. It's a dangerous time because the newly independent nation must answer a very important question: were the rules, the law, etc., made by our previous rulers something that belongs to them and is of no worth for us now, or should we still obey them? It's time for the Wolves of Wall Street to go wild and, if the government lets them (or they become the government), the country will be in deep shit for a long time.