October 2014

Noah Charney


Writing with Miha Mazzini

Miha Mazzini is the best selling novelist in Slovenian history. His first novel, Drobtinice, which was just released in English translation as Crumbs, was the first book in Slovenia to be sold door to door, back in 1987, and the method worked shockingly well. Slovenes, unused to salesmen turning up at their door, bought thousands of copies of Mazzini's novel, to the point that it sold over 54,000, which would make it a bestseller in just about any country, let alone Slovenia, with a population of just 2 million, where selling 500 books can put you onto the bestseller list.

Mazzini recently appeared at the Edinburgh Literary Festival -- a long way from home. He grew up in the bleak industrial city of Jesenice, in northern Slovenia beside the Austrian border, back when Slovenia was the most independent -- and culturally and economically advanced -- region of Yugoslavia. He wanted to study literature but ended up in the field of computers, where he works to this day. He has spent periods of his career as a full-time writer, but it is not economically feasible in a country where, his Drobtinice aside, a book would be lucky to sell a thousand copies, and freelance articles for magazines and newspapers pay only in double figures. So he has a full-time job as a computer specialist for the national telecommunications firm, and he writes on weekends and holidays.

His production, taking this into consideration, is hugely impressive. He is the most-read columnist in the Slovenian media, with his blog (part of the news website siol.net) skewing the readership for the rest of the site by drawing tens of thousands more visitors than any other writer. Part of his appeal is that he tells it like it is -- he does not shy from saying that something is foolish or bad. Slovenia is so small, with its capital, Ljubljana (where he lives today) populated with only 300,000 souls, and the cultural elite representing only a few hundred people, that everyone knows everyone else, and if you criticize someone's book one day, you will surely run into them the following week. This has produced a culture of non-criticism, largely for social reasons. Mazzini is one of just a handful of writers who are unafraid to speak out, which is refreshing in a world in which book reviews usually just consist of an artfully written summary of the contents of the book in question. Mazzini is more prosaic about his column's success: "Franc Milčinski, the Slovenian writer, waited to die before publishing his very funny novel. I dare to be funny while I'm alive, that's all."           

While hugely popular in Slovenia, Mazzini has also had the most popular success in the Anglophone publishing world of any Slovene author. One of the reasons is purely practical: He pays to have his own novels translated into English, and therefore has a much easier time placing them, through his agent, with Anglophone publishers. Most Slovene authors do not want to pay for their own translations, and wait to be approached by foreign publishers. Were they to write in Spanish, French, Italian, even Chinese or Arabic these days, then foreign publishers might find them. Major publishing houses employ readers of these languages to seek out books to acquire. But Slovene is exotic enough that no one is going to stumble upon a novel in that language and just happen to read it. So Mazzini turned proactive, and, as a result, he has many books in English. Paloma Negra just came out, a novel based on a real (and bizarre) popular trend during Tito's Yugoslavia of a sort of Mexico-mania, a passion for all things Mexican, that cropped up in the 1950s. His novel Guarding Hanna is a twist on "Beauty and the Beast," wherein a deformed, monstrous hit man is obliged to guard an important witness until she can make it to trial. Its first chapter is one of the best short pieces of writing I've read, in any language. Unsurprisingly, the novel has been optioned for film. And his novella, The German Lottery, follows the story of a Yugoslav postman who loves the regime's strict regulations for societal behavior, but is asked to break them by a man with secret wealth who wants to use the postman to distribute his riches to locals in need.

I've been friends with Mazzini for several years, and have admired his writing for several more (I am an American ex-pat living in Slovenia). One of the things I like about him is that, no matter what the cultural observation I've made, he has an explanation for it that is historically researched and suddenly brings what I noticed into focus. Take the example of Slovenian birthdays: at every birthday party I have attended, there is a formal method to congratulate that takes the form of a lineup of guests, each one of whom waits his or her turn and approaches the celebrant, extends a hand to shake solemnly, and says the same words, "Vse najboljše za tvoj rojstni dan" ("All the best on your birthday"). Seeing this happen a few times would not be remarkable, but this is how everyone congratulates here. Reading The German Lottery and speaking to Mazzini, I learned why. There were handbooks on behavior and etiquette for such situations, published by the Yugoslav state, which dictated the preferred way to act. The postman in Mazzini's novella loves the fact that he does not have to think for himself, and does everything according to the handbook, which he keeps in his pocket. Independent since 1991 and a long-standing member of the EU, Slovenia still has roots in the Yugoslav traditions, and this is one of them. Reading Mazzini, and chatting with him (for those who have the chance to do so), is part literary entertainment, part social history lesson.

In addition to novels, Mazzini occasionally directs films and writes screenplays. His forthcoming novel, The Erased, will likewise be a film -- but he has had a devil of a time getting funding for it, despite the fact that his description of it, and the film trailer that he did get funding to make, are as gripping as can be. The film follows what happens to a woman whose official identity is accidentally erased from governmental records during the shift of Slovenia away from Yugoslavia, to independence -- something that indeed happened to thousands of people. Overnight they cease to officially exist. Part drama, part thriller, the novel -- and its film -- seem like they would be of great interest. They are, but it seems too much so.

Mazzini describes the byzantine manner in which small European nations give out funding for films. Slovenia has two film-funding bodies that accept proposals and scripts and dole out governmental cash to make films, with a maximum possible budget of 700,000 EUR. Most years one or two films are produced in Slovenia. There is a strong preference for what would be consider art house films, with many long shots of people staring into the rain or into mirrors while smoking. Some joke that there has never been a Slovene film in which someone has run. There certainly has never been a Slovene film that has made money, or broken even. Producers are satisfied with their share of whatever governmental funding is given out to make the film, and those I interviewed expressed no incentive to make a film that would be popular abroad. Mazzini ran into similar problems when he pitched his script for The Erased. His script won second place in a Europe-wide competition to secure funds to film a theatrical trailer, which he did. He then traveled to a conference in Thessaloniki, where dozens of European filmmakers pitched their ideas to producers who could fund them. Mazzini described his audience of producers as rapt, jaws dropped at his description of The Erased, but none opened their checkbooks. Their main concern was that the film did not sound artsy enough, that it was too popular and mainstream. He was confused as to why this should be a problem, but some producers explained to him that they are funded by Ministries of Culture, and they are expected to support films as art. They already have international distribution networks for small-scale art house theaters. They felt like they would not be fulfilling their cultural duty to support a potential hit thriller, and they would not know how to get such a film into the Cineplexes, or how the art house crowd would react to them. He is still searching for funding, because he is determined to direct The Erased. If he gives up, there are other options. Ken Loach asked to buy the script so that he could make it.            

Mazzini did his master's in England, before returning to Slovenia for a PhD, and his writing and IT careers. Perhaps the experience abroad gave him an injection of proactivity that is lacking in the majority of Slovenes, another national trait I have observed. There is a national passivity that Mazzini describes as the result of several millennia of subservience. Slovenia has had a very mild history -- even its war of independence with Yugoslavia lasted only ten days, with almost no casualties -- but it has always functioned within the context of a larger empire, from Rome to the Habsburgs to the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes to Napoleon to Yugoslavia. When asked about the characteristics of Slovenian literature, Mazzini replied:

My years as system analyst in IT industry has left some marks, I admit. I took the book called Encyclopedia of Slovenian Literary Heroes and analyzed all the heroes starting with letter K (the shortest of all list). There were 71 of them (if I remember correctly). Only one active, and even a child at that. He conquers the obstacles and wins in the end. One starts actively and then gets afraid and retreats back home, in the same situation where he has started from. The rest, 69 of them, just passively wait what will happen. That corresponds with the mindset of the small nation, naturally.

So one in seventy-one "literary heroes" was proactive, while the others waited to see if life would come to them. This sounds about right, based on my experience of Slovenes in general. They are kind, hardworking, diligent, fastidious, but largely prefer to lie low, do what is asked of them, and try not to stand out. There is a soul-sucking phrase that I have heard said a bit too often that translates roughly as "If you are looking at the stars, you'll be likely to step in shit." Don't aim too high; it will only get you into trouble. Mazzini is one of a rare dozen or so Slovenes I know who have surmounted this attitude, have aimed for the stars, and have achieved distinctive success abroad.

Noah Charney is a professor and best-selling author. You can learn more about him at www.noahcharney.com or on Facebook. He will be teaching a Guardian Masterclass in London called "How to Write About Art."