Although translated into English by America’s Scala House Press in 2004 under the title The Cartier Project, it is only now that Miha Mazzini’s Crumbs has been published in the UK. Its publication by Freight Books in February of this year is timely; as “a ribald, satirical Balkan classic about identity and independence in the year of the Scottish referendum”, the 1987 Yugoslavian Book of the Year has done nothing but gather fresh praise from readers old and new alike.
Best described as a blend of Irvine Welsh, Mikhail Bulgakov and Charles Bukowski, Crumbs is a cynical and unflinching portrayal of life on the breadline in “an unnamed Communist factory town prior to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia”. As a citizen of a country which was redefined numerous times over the course of the 20th century before settling into its current division, it comes as no real surprise that Mazzini suffered from “such a lack of identity as a kid that [his] favourite comic book hero was The Invisible Man”, or that in Egon, the “amoral but charismatic writer” upon whom the narrative of Crumbs is centred, we see personified the growth of a nationalist sentiment under the socialism of the Communist regime which led to the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s.
Although the author admits in the introduction to this new edition of his novel that “the style of the writing was definitely born out of baby-sitting circumstances: short sentences meant I didn’t have to press so many keys on the typewriter and make so much noise; short paragraphs because I had to constantly check if my daughter was still sleeping”, it is a feature which only strengthens the novel’s narrative. The clipped, matter of fact manner in which Egon delivers his tale is comparable to that of the hard-boiled detective fiction of James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiel Hammett; like Spade and Marlowe, Egon presents his tale to his audience with a decidedly conversational cynicism.
Indeed, with its urban setting, charismatic anti-hero, and cast of characters named largely after their occupations or distinguishing features (Poet, Cowboy, Hippy), Crumbs exhibits many of the tropes associated with the noir genre, not least its jaded views on the Society within which it is set. Although the socio-political context of the novel may account for much of the critical interest which it has attracted, it is Mazzini’s skill as a writer which should be lauded; in the bare, economic sentences necessitated by the demands of parenthood, he succeeds not just in crafting an engaging and enjoyable satire, but also in conveying a solid sense of self through the frustrated artist Egon.
A Germanic name meaning “sharp point”, Egon serves not only as a tool with which to dissect Yugoslavian society, but also as Mazzini’s artistic avatar and Ego. Where Egon’s literary ambitions were reduced to the writing of pulp romance novels in order to fund his obsession with the ludicrously expensive fragrance Cartier Pour Homme with which he attempts to distinguish himself from the masses, Mazzini’s original intention was “to write a script, but [he] had to be realistic and ask himself who would want to film it.”
Despite Mazzini’s compromise on form in the name of content, almost thirty years after its initial release, Crumbs maintains its status as the best-selling novel ever to come out of Slovenia. Cited by the Detroit Free Press as “probably the most fascinating novel you will read this year”, it is an accessible and yet wonderfully loaded text which is not only relevant in the face of the Scottish referendum, but also in its concern with the artist’s eternal struggle between expression and the practicality of commercial profit, all wrapped in a narrative voice which is both skilful and engaging in its execution.