This novel can be described best as a collection of musings on language, love, longing, boredom, and alienation. All this, strung together on the thread of the author’s experience as a structural engineer on a construction site.
Love Notes from a German Building Site is narrated by Paul, an Irish engineer working under a contract in Alexanderplatz, Berlin. This protagonist is a semi-autobiographical character created by author Adrian Duncan.
This book is an excellent and a daring debut. Daring, because of the unconventional narrative style filled with meditations and well-meaning digressions. The notes and musings wrap themselves like cotton candy around the plot, which, like the stick, holds it together while being the least important aspect.
One of the most important elements of the book is the German language. The language that Paul is forced to learn days after moving to Berlin. It is the only language of communication with the majority of the workforce of the building site.
While he lays bare his love for Evelyn, his girlfriend, the titular love notes are not the ones he writes for her. Instead, they are the notes he makes while describing the German words that appear in the dictionary and his thoughts on them.
For example, a list of commonly used, commonly confused terms, and Paul’s attempt to differentiate them:
Der Spann – the instep of your foot Die Spanne – the span of time Spannen – to stretch
As someone who is trying to learn German, Paul makes his observations about the language with a definite naïveté. I remembered doing the same when I had encountered German for the first time.
Only, the author does it in a more poetic manner, comparing the sentences to the illustrations of movement: “I thought about the order of words in German sentences and how the active verb – the descriptive verb – was so often held breathlessly till the end. When people spoke to me in German, I always imagined the nouns and adverbs and adjectives lying inert across the line of the sentence until the last word, this verb, sprung them into life.”
The move to Berlin is dictated by Paul’s need for a job and Evelyn’s completion of an art history course. The reader is shown, right away, the frenzy and chaos that takes place on a construction site. Having never been on a building site, the tools, the problems and the challenges that Paul faces were interesting to me.
The other characters of the site surround Paul, helping drive the plot and the narrative. There’s his close friend Shane, another Irishman, and Gerald, the arrogant and unempathetic boss.
It’s Jochen who stands out, though. In a brief appearance, he tells Paul that the most beautiful moment of his life was reading Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog”, when “Anna Sergeyevna notices the dew on the grass”.
Love Notes from a German Building Site is short, less than 200 pages. The lack of a solid plot sometimes works in favour of the airy and spacious narrative. But at times, feels like a lot more could have been told.
The characters do not get enough time, and the exposition is limited to a few anecdotes. It does have some heartfelt moments, like the recurring instances of a “game” Shane and Paul share that involves artistically rearranging random objects in the site to get each other’s attention.
At its heart, the story deals with immigration and alienation. The dislocation of the protagonist couple from Dublin to Berlin, and Evelyn’s move to Köln later. The dissonance between Evelyn’s art-curation job and Paul’s exhausting job on the site.
Evelyn, and Berlin itself, provide Paul with much-needed respite from his frustration with his job on the site, the strain of the work, and his growing resentment. The story is also about the search for such a respite.
When I go out onto any terrace here in Dublin, the skyline seems nearly to have more cranes than buildings. I wonder how many Pauls are out there, introspecting about their decisions – and how many of them might have come here, hunting for that elusive job, and unlike Paul, made this their home.
This book is a quick read. It is inventive and explorative, so much so that it seems like the author has gone off on a tangent, until he finds a way to tie it back to the plot, sometimes rather beautifully.