Miha Mazzini’s novel Crumbs was first published in Slovenia in 1987 and ‘sold 54,000 copies in a language spoken by fewer than two million people’. According to Mazzini, the royalties that accrued to him from that initial publication just about bought a dinner for his family and a couple of friends.
Crumbs is set in an unidentified town in Slovenia prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia. The main source of employment is the local foundry. Those who don’t already work there live in a ramshackle settlement on the edge of town hoping for a job and the flat that comes with it. The town and the foundry are enclosed by mountains. It’s a hothouse in every sense.
The narrator, Egon, is part Sick Boy, part Renton. Like Sick Boy, he is extremely successful in the sexual sphere and quickly racks up a series of energetic encounters. One involves romping around in cream before removing some suspect hairs from it and layering a birthday cake. He is also a philosopher with a streak of Rentonian nihilism and a similar line in satire and dark humour. Egon differs from Renton, however, in his willingness to express views publically rather than confine them to internal monologues.
He is more resourceful than the boys of Trainspotting and has to be in order to avoid working at the foundry: wearing a company uniform to pass as an employee and eat in the canteen, selling alcohol to workers through the exterior fence and searching the foundry’s vast used paper mountain (‘the National Library’) for anything he can sell or read. In between times he makes money by writing trashy romance novels under a pseudonym.
Egon lives in a kind of twilight world where night or day is of little consequence. He wanders from the foundry to the pubs to the woods. His acquaintances, with one exception, are never quite friends and often go by short, summative, nicknames like Boxer, Hippy, Noodle or Sherriff. There’s ganja in the forest and beer-a-plenty but Egon’s circle finds different ways to escape. They dress as cowboys, worship Nastassja Kinski or cut strips from their own skin.
Egon is infatuated with a particular brand of expensive aftershave; the only still point in a manic world that has him moving between periods of high sexual or intellectual energy and enervating panic attacks. He is a secretive and not entirely reliable narrator who provides information on slow-release. It’s a while, for instance, before he reveals that he is known to the police.
It is tempting to read Crumbs as a Slovenian version of Scottish Grunge Lit. There’s no heroin supply to provide the ultimate opt-out, but the characters trapped by the foundry and the mountains interact in ways that are remarkably similar to those once stuck at the foot of Leith Walk. Mazzini orchestrates it all with great skill and sustains a quick-fire, fragmented narrative that might otherwise be chaotic.
A broader reading could also see this as a study of characters in limbo, both in the original capital L sense of the edge of Hell and the more general sense of a period of waiting. Yugoslavia is under strain and independent Slovenia is in the wings. According to the cover notes on the new paperback edition, Crumbs is ‘a fascinating and utterly unique commentary on the pathology of self-determination’. I have no idea what that means, but if it is the reason this engaging novel has been resurrected then it must be a good thing.
[Miha Mazzini Crumbs in published by Freight Books]