The Crumb of Bread

Lukas Bärfuss

German, Rowohlt, Hamburg, 2023

“There were no disasters. Life was the disaster. It flowed along and knew only one direction, towards gradual attrition.”

“Something seemed to be rotten, and not only in her life. There seemed to be something not right in the world.”

“Everyone wants to be exceptional. Everyone is fighting for a life of their own, a story of their own, but there’s no such thing. Not as long as we’re all being forced into the same mould.”

Lukas Bärfuss’s fourth novel The Crumb of Bread is his first to centre on a woman. In sober, unadorned prose he tells the story of Adelina, the daughter of Italian immigrants, who tries unsuccessfully to find a way out of poverty.

Adelina is astute and capable, although she hardly learnt to read and write at school. She ekes out a living for her and her daughter Emma in Zurich, but the constant search for badly paid jobs is gruelling. Poverty sticks to her like a burr. Then the timid Emil enters her life and, for a time, hope blossoms. Emil is kind and accommodating; he takes in Adelina and Emma, pays off Adelina’s debts and teaches her to read. His loving care eases her plight, but she is frustrated by her emotional dependency. Lukas Bärfuss describes these difficult circumstances without interpreting or psychologising. In a prose reminiscent of Kleist, he traces Adelina’s every step, soberly describing each of her words, gestures and actions.

Despite her troubles, Adelina remains calm and composed, until one day in Italy—where Emil is looking for a house to do up—Emma suddenly disappears. Adelina’s world falls apart. She suspects Emil of being behind it and asks a mysterious vagrant for help. Through him she is swept up in the maelstrom of the leaden seventies. In a clandestine flat-share she comes across the revolutionary Renato, who explains to her that she is a slave of the ruling classes. In return for a small favour, he promises to help her look for Emma, but without success. Eventually Adelina recovers her peace of mind when she discovers that Emma was not kidnapped; she had been hiding all along. Adelina realises that without money and without the necessary ‘crumb of bread’ she can’t offer her daughter a future. With tightly rhythmic sentences, Lukas Bärfuss creates a dense text that reflects the hopelessness of Adelina’s situation. She may not have much luck in life, but she is fortunate in the quiet empathy of the author who recognises her plight as a symptom of the deep injustice of the world. The novel’s open ending prepares the ground for the next book in what is planned as a trilogy.

Text by Beat Mazenauer

Die Krume Brot
Rowohlt, Hamburg
Translation rights
Rowohlt Foreign Rights,
Publication date
April 2023


Lukas Bärfuss

Lukas Bärfuss was born in Thun in 1971. He is a dramatist, novelist and polemical journalist. His plays are performed all over the world, and his novels have been translated into 20 languages. Lukas Bärfuss is a member of the German Academy of Language and Literature, and lives in Zurich. He has won the Berlin Literary Prize, the Swiss Book Prize and the Georg Büchner Prize.

Photo: © Lea Meienberg