Love Notes From a German Building Site by Adrian Duncan: Men at Work

It was its Berlin setting that first attracted me to Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From a German Building Site, an irresistible backdrop for me. I’d somehow thought it was a love story, quite possibly an unhappy one, but it turned out to be very much more interesting than that. Duncan’s debut follows a couple in their mid-thirties who have left Ireland for Germany. While Evelyn looks forward to starting a new life, Paul flounders at work, trying to tighten his grasp on a language which constantly eludes him.

Paul is a structural engineer refurbishing a building on Alexanderplatz in the old East Berlin, soon to be a temple to consumerism. Evelyn is the daughter of German parents who settled in Ireland in the ‘60s. She’s at ease with the language Paul struggles to express himself in, trying to fix words in his mind with the lists he calls ‘love notes’. The site is a tricky place to navigate: the boss is irascible, many of the workers have little English and Paul is unconfident, more used to working with plans than construction. As the six months of his contract wear on, Paul and Evelyn see little of each other. She explores the city and prepares for her new job in Cologne, a change of career from economist to museum curator filling her with excitement, while Paul grapples with the difficulties of working in a job which doesn’t quite fit. As the project nears its end, tempers on site become dangerously frayed, crises flare and Paul feels himself increasingly out of kilter.

A facet of our curiosity had begun falling away in those specializing years in university, like a shard of rock dislodging itself from a cliff face and slipping quietly into the  water below 

Duncan spent ten years as an engineer before drawing on that experience to write this thoughtful novella whose episodic structure is carefully constructed from memories, snapshots, observations and Paul’s ‘love notes’. Duncan’s use of language is quietly precise, his sense of place wonderfully atmospheric. A few clean bright sentences describing the sound of snow underfoot took me back to my first visit to Berlin, over ten years ago, while his description of Antwerp’s station instantly summoned it up for me as if I was there. The same quiet precision conveys the mind of a man wrestling with work that requires an accuracy hard to achieve in a language which seems to slip through his fingers, exacerbated by the utter exhaustion of an unrelenting schedule as the project hurtles towards its deadline. So few novels are set in the workplace and yet work is such an important part of our lives. Whether we feel comfortable in it or not contributes to our physical and mental health, our relationships and the way we see ourselves. It can both imprison us and liberate us. Written in spare, elegant prose, this beautifully crafted novella brings its importance sharply into focus.

Head of Zeus: London 2019 9781789546248 205 pages Hardback

Next week will be all about my books of the year which, as usual, I’ve been incapable of trimming back to a sensible figure.

12 thoughts on “Love Notes From a German Building Site by Adrian Duncan: Men at Work”

  1. This sounds like a perfect example of expat disorientation literature. I used to collect these to show my clients (expats sent by their companies to work somewhere for a few years). Most of them experienced some form of culture shock, or else stuck to a small expat bubble where they didn’t have to learn the language or adapt too much.

  2. I saw this on Twitter a few weeks ago & liked the sound of it. How someone reacts when living and working in a different culture and language is something I find fascinating, especially when you compare how British expats fare compared to the expectations placed on migrants coming here.

    1. Absolutely! We’re spoilt by the excellent English spoken by so many when we visit other countries buts it’s very different if you’re living and working there. I don’t think it’s possible to make a real connection without learning a country’s language. Duncan portrays that very well.

  3. The title didnt make me immediately think this was a book I should read. But your review makes it much more interesting than the title suggests. Alexanderplatz is certainly far more consumer oriented now than it was when the Wall was demolished – I remember it being a very austere space.

    Working in a country where you don’t speak the language is very difficult. Even if your colleagues can speak some English they will revert to their native tongue amongst themselves. So you feel very much the outsider.

    1. It’s changed a good deal over the decade I’ve been visiting Berlin, Karen. I’m sure it”s hard to become part of a community without the learning its language. One thing if you’re settling there but quite another if it’s just a six-month stint unless you’re one of those enviable people with a flare for languages. Sadly, I’m not!

  4. Trying to cope in another language has always been a terrifying prospect to me. It’s OK on holiday – fun even – but I couldn’t imagine working in it. As has already been said in the comments, we Brits are spoiled by the fact that so many people speak English. There’s so little incentive to really master other languages, and certainly in my day at school long ago, they were taught in a very perfunctory way. It sounds like the author has done an excellent job of showing how isolating it could be.

    1. Yes, I think he’s captured that feeling of disorientation exacerbated by exhaustion very well. I know what you mean about being at sea in another language although being plunged in the deep end on your own is supposed to be the best way to learn. I always try to fix the words for ‘hello’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in my head wherever I am.

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