Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2010, 184 pages
Translation rights sold to: Al rights available
SCOTCH PAINTS A DESOLATE picture of post-industrial decay in a provincial town: abandoned industrial plants, the workers at and ‘capitalist’ owners of the few factories saved from closure, scrap iron and concrete, rotgut, and apartment blocks for unmarried labourers. Against this backdrop there takes shape a fragile love affair between a young engineer, trapped in the dead-end of the Special Alloys Factory, and the director’s secretary, who traverses this desolate landscape on roller-skates, with a copy of Marcus Aurelius tucked away in her rucksack. Above it all floats the memory of Ila, a peasant who dies in his bed, to the sound of a fiddle, and a barely divinable nostalgia for a vanished rural world. Now violently, now diffusely, death takes its toll on characters and fading friendships. Ioana Bradea’s novel is also an elegy on the ruins of the political system from before 1989, a strange, musical poem about factories and plants in their death throes, about cranes and machinery with complicated technical names, now defunct in the brave new world of contemporary Romania.
THE DIRECTOR’S SECRETARY. Hmm.
Writes up the minutes for meetings.
Twiddles locks of yellow hair when she’s on the ’phone to suppliers.
Arranges meetings with various clients and contractors.
Distributes management circulars in the production sectors.
Doodles with red biro in the margins of company documents.
Translates the user manuals that come with consignments of equipment.
Spins her chair around using her heels until the false ceiling whistles in her ears.
Makes her way across the factory floor wearing a short skirt and clutching a sheaf of paper.
Her cheeks as clean as a freshly painted door.
Above the cement floor her thighs glide blackly stockings and all.
Her green eyes light her way among the machinery on the factory floor.
Like two headlamps.
En route she slows down and turns her head.
You might think she is stopping to say hello to someone.
But she fastens her gaze on the machine that screeches weirdly every half an hour. For a moment, she thinks she can hear a snatch of drumbeat that shatters sleep or the sun. And so she immediately waddles on her way.
She remembers that it’s only a machine, after all.
She lands beyond the grinding mills, behind the glass partition, next to the massive photocopier. Sheltered.
She has to make three separate copies of an entire manual about materials resistance and the physical forces methodically applicable in buildings.
But after a while it’s as if she grows numb by the photocopier.
Very well: it’s a secretary’s job to stack the paper in the photocopier feed tray.
To turn it over in time.
To set the number of copies and press the start button.
Her feet squirm and her big toes scrunch up against the tips of her boots.
She waits for the piping hot pages to come out of the oven.
She watches them slowly flowing.
She keeps tally in a whisper but loses count somewhere around the eighty-third page.
The neat sheets of paper glide out and stack themselves one on top of the other.
They merge into a kind of white river.
Pallid, milky gelatine spewed by the photocopier.
They glide under the door straight into the production area.
Eyes are startled from their numbness and peer back and forth, until they come to their senses.
She was imagining it. A dizzy spell is wafting manically around her brain.
She swiftly gathers up the paper from the grey plastic tray.
In her haste she cuts her finger on the edge of one of the sheets of paper.
A thin line of blood pierces the skin and emerges into the air.
Let her catch her breath.
Now she’s back in the chair that keeps swivelling between two cardinal points: the pane of glass that overlooks the factory floor and the window that overlooks the Special Alloys Factory. And the line of hills at the edge of town, with the clump of lonely trees on top. From their lopped branches once swung thousands of men sentenced to hang. A good few years ago.
In the Middle Ages, to be precise.
A stone’s throw from the days of Marcus Aurelius.
At least back in those days people still lived in communion with the gods.
Without a doubt, the trees in question had no leaves. They will have been torn off deliberately. So that only the naked, bleached boughs would remain, as appalling as the message they conveyed.
Now she moves her lips, almost imperceptibly, like a fish in a basin. Her eyebrows flex to a potentially biting objection.
Maybe she is wondering why Marcus Aurelius set out to be mindful of the nature of the universe and his own nature. Maybe she is wondering what kind of part it is and what kind of universe.
But what the hell could the Romans have known about the universe in the year 170 A.D.?
Not a lot.
How then can you be mindful of the whole of eternity, when you have been allotted only a paltry length of time?
She casts a glance out of the window.
It’s not snowing and there is no outline of any engineer spying from the factory across the road.
He must be on his lunch break. She cranes her neck and looks for her car in the car park. It’s still there, in the familiar spot.
Meanwhile, the factory yard has pulled the wind out of its pocket.
It flutters between the fences.
It whirls yellow corn-puff bags through the air.
Scraps of abandoned sandwich wrappers are snowing by the factory lamps. Two large sheets of packing paper have burst through the open doors.
The scraps have pressed their faces to the high fence that overlooks the penitentiary.
A terrible storm is brewing.
At the Prefabs.
They’re all at fever pitch: the inter-factory football championship is about to begin. Some thirty workers are crowded together on rickety chairs and long wooden benches pressed up against the wall. Between concrete walls papered with seascapes, they have assembled to decide on teams and discuss tactics.
Over the cement floor they’ve dragged tables spread with floral waxcloth and joined them in a row. The spirituous stench from the vodka glasses in front of them mingles with the reek of sweat.
The Prefabs appeared in the 1980s.
In the 1980s, an ambitious Party activist bought himself the first Dacia car in the neighbourhood: he straightaway procured four prefabricated sheets of concrete, from which he built himself a garage. A few years later, other prefabricated sheets were adjoined to that garage, until a sausage of pocked concrete formed in front of the Foundry’s blocks of flats for unmarried workers. For a time, the cars of the Party activists dwelled therein.
After ’89, someone did up the first of the concrete garages, turning it into a bar: he mounted a thermopane panel with a door and windows at the entrance.
Within, he started selling cheap liquor.
The business turned out to be hugely profitable.
Hundreds of workers stop off at the Prefabs every morning and afternoon. Some of them nip out during their lunch break to neck a swift shot. Because the prices are very low.
Only here can you buy the cheapest 100g shot of brandy.
A groggy ray of sunlight stumbles up against the windows: only now do the smudges from thick, grubby fingers begin to glint upon the glass. The handle of the thermopane door, formerly white and fresh, now dangles scored and scratched.
Through the windows of the Prefabs you can see the railway station.
The railway lines.
The workmen crossing the tracks where it’s not allowed, but never getting a fine, in spite of the warning signs.
You can also see the stationary goods trains with their voided wagons and fading paint. You can partly see the Foundry yard and the yellow crane with its slender arm pointing towards the station.
It guards them peacefully, massive, immovable.
They have hung from its breast a huge banner inscribed with the name of the factory. The luminous lettering lights up at night, and its glow can be seen from the edge of town. Sometimes the letters gaze disgustedly at the cars on the ring road or at the other crane, fifteen minutes away, very close to the train station building.
They have swung the arm of the crane by the station over the ten railway tracks. They have decorated this one, too, with a pretty banner for the cosmetics and manicure salon in the town centre.
But the gazes of those in the Prefabs do not reach that far.
At best, they gawp at the bustle across the road, in the yard of the Foundry, where they’re unloading strips of steel from a lorry.
Or else they leaf through the damp pile of magazines and leaflets stacked on the window ledge. On top sits yesterday’s local paper, folded and left open at a page called ‘The Police have got their eyes on you,’ which is quick to point out that the majority of unsolved thefts are committed by minors. The latest ‘hauls’ made by the police: in a single day they arrested four schoolboys and one ‘lone’ thief, who had nicked a chainsaw worth about two pigs.
The thief was held for two hours at the village police station.
Then it was decided that he should be investigated at liberty.
The football championship is getting underway.
At one of the tables an argument over the teams breaks out.
Because there are too few active factories remaining in the industrial zone, teams from private companies based in the town have been allowed into the competition. The gas company, for example, and the mobile ’phone people.
The football matches are played a stone’s throw from the Prefabs, on a narrow, pitted strip of land that once belonged to the Glass Factory. Last year it was sold to a private investor, who carpeted it with artificial grass and now hires it out by the hour for football matches.
It doesn’t cost much.
They all chip in.
The price includes two sets of jerseys, yellow and green, cackhandedly tailored from a synthetic but phosphorescent fabric. The administrator probably washes them once a month, because the jerseys reek of sweat. They cause an argument every time: no one wants to wear them. They’re so revolting. But so that the teams won’t get mixed up, at least half the players have to wear them. As a rule, the ones who lost the week before.
The others undress and impatiently line up their shoes at the edge of the pitch. Then they deposit the bags for the trousers, for the coats, and for the keys and mobile phones. They strip down to their boxers and undershirts. They stretch their muscles, run a few steps, do squat thrusts. The more superstitious always have a piddle in the opposing side’s corner. It helps them to score at least one goal.
The opposing side boos noisily and shouts all kinds of obscenities from the other half of the pitch.
The match gets under way at a plodding pace.
Then the goals begin to flow, recklessly, from one end of the pitch to the other.
They’re running around tenaciously, chaotically, but with a passion.
Because of the exertion and the rather large paunches, because of advancing years and all kinds of blunders, arguments and accusations inevitably break out. Sometimes, it goes as far as shoving, swearing and punching below the belt.
The match is going to pot because of that lot who play for Ilva Micã University, FC Cowclart and Demolition United.
They need to take a grinder to them feet of theirs if they’re going to put the ball in the back of the net.
This is no game for milksops like them.
If they want exercise, they’d be better off jogging around the block than letting the whole nation see they don’t know how to kick a ball.
Where the hell did they learn how to play as crap as that?
It’s the only time a worker is allowed to yell at an accountant or a gaffer, for not passing the ball or defending the goal.
After the match, everybody has a drink at the Prefabs.
The voices groggy with beer, vodka or brandy yell and swear that they’ll never play with such teammates again. They’d have been better off staying at home and watching a real match on the telly than getting all het up about some idiot with two left feet.
Half an hour later, the voices calm down, having wearied.
They all agree that they play football for the sake of their health.
It’s hardly the Champions’ League.
They’ll concentrate better in the next matches in the championship. They need to get at least as far as the semi-finals. There’s a rumour that this year the organisers will be giving the champions cotton jerseys and crates of beer.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“A love story set in post-industrial Romania. I don’t know whether you’ve seen what has become of the Ceausescu-era industrial plants in small provincial towns. These now pointless, abandoned, depressing spaces harbour moving stories. The agile mind of Ioana Bradea detects them and gives them the right to a new life.”
(Doru IFTIME, One)
“Scotch is a powerful text and a surprising book: as aesthetic as it is realistic. It possesses an atrocious realism.”
(Bianca BURȚA-CERNAT, Observator cultural)
“A refined book, one that exudes decay, a hallucinatory novel, in spite of the veracity of its portrayals, a requiem for the factories and plants of socialist Romania.”
(Gabriela GHEORGHIȘOR, Luceafărul de dimineață)
“The book’s real trump card is the intensity whereby, probing the details of a disused, apparently anodyne industrial zone, it manages to convert the depressing minimalism of the formula into a tragic and ironic emblem of the disappearance of a world that once seemed eternal.”
(Paul CERNAT, Bucureștiul Cultural)