Subtle bildungsroman from a brutish Berlin building site
Fiction: Love Notes From A German Building Site
The Lilliput Press, €12
Adrian Duncan's debut novel is meditative, understated, and very honest. The narrator Paul, an Irish engineer, has moved to Berlin, with his girlfriend, Evelyn, to work and search for a more meaningful life.
Their transition is told through a series of interlinked vignettes which cover learning German, art and engineering, and the daily challenges faced on a building site.
Paul's love notes traverse the bridge between memoir and essay.
On the building site in Alexanderplatz, Paul gets a knee injury. Evelyn goes to Cologne to train as an art-handler.
Their relationship turns long-distance as the pressure of overworking and being alone leads to a drinking binge.
The site-managers turn the screw for productivity's sake. The intricacies of working in Germany bring misunderstanding and Paul's plans unravel as the pointlessness of refurbishing another mega-electronics store turns into a crisis of loneliness, common to the migrant worker, yet rarely described in literature with such subtle depth.
To battle futility, Paul and an Irish colleague begin a game of art-installation one-upmanship.
At night, while the building site sleeps, they arrange tools and materials into bizarre sculptures which increase in daring and size.
The game is rebellion, bonding, and sabotage. The colleague wins by being discovered and fired. Paul buckles down and returns to work, which is mostly dealing with the cruel whims of upper management while supervising the Eastern Europeans who do all the heavy lifting and drilling.
As spring and the sign-off day approach, the stress of handing over a spotless retail outlet reaches absurd, almost theatrical levels: a pipe bursts, a CCTV cable needs replacing, columns must be removed to meet code.
The building site is frenetic with teams of contractors, sub-contractors, inspectors, and clients, all male, all coming and going, all questioning which corner must be cut to be done on time.
Working around the clock, Paul begins to remember youthful ambitions. Old dreams of designing objects with meaning and beauty resurface.
Paul once wanted to build a telecommunications mast with a viewing platform. The aesthetic line in Paul's mind cannot compete with the ugly noise of commercial construction. Paul just wants a quiet coffee and a chat with Evelyn. The list of German words gets shorter, more abrupt.
On the surface, Love Notes from a German Building Site is a well-told coming-of-age story. Paul moves to a new city, starts a new job, and his romantic ideas are crushed by survival.
On a more profound level, Duncan gives us the human soul of a building site with all the flaws and vulnerabilities laid bare.
In such a brutish and masculine atmosphere, Duncan's account is an unmasked ray of hope. Paul and his generation ask: What is good work and love and why are they both so hard to find?
The prose is minimal, yet the ideas are maximal. If more men thought and wrote as tenderly and honestly as Adrian Duncan, we'd have stronger, sturdier novels and fewer garish monuments to consumerism.
Sunday Indo Living