Love Notes from a German Building Site, by Adrian Duncan, The Lilliput Press, 204 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1843517542
The time is the late 2000s or early 2010s, shortly after the collapse in employment in construction in Ireland, and the place is Berlin, where a number of Irish builders and engineers have washed up, including Paul, our narrator, Gerald, his boss, from Donegal, and Shane, “a tall, overweight young man from the Midlands – affable if at times gauche”. Their employer is a large British construction company which is “snapping up out-of-work and desperate Irish engineers, managers and tradespeople” for work on various projects across mainland Europe. And the particular project on the site featured in the title is the refurbishment, on Alexanderplatz, just inside the former East Berlin, of an existing building which is to open as an electronics and appliance store. The tone is set early on when Paul has his first interview with Gerald:
‘ … I’ve a phone for you,’ he said, handing me a smartphone, ‘and when I call you on that, you better fucking take it. ’Cos I’m calling you for a reason, okay?’ …‘Good man,’ he said, ‘and don’t bother come in tomorrow or Sunday, but rest the body for Monday. We go then, and we don’t stop till we stop.’
Welcome to macholand. The project may be underresourced, the staff underqualified, the problems and obstructions underestimated and the allotted time insufficient, but the client will shout at the site manager, who will shout at the engineers, who will shout at the tradesmen and general operatives (GOs). There is big money to be made if it comes in on time and on budget and conversely to be lost if it doesn’t. All this shouting is apparently known as management, and it is sure to get the thing over the line … or not.
A building site seems to be a bloody awful place, particularly when corners are cut. German building inspectors are somewhere around, but not on site. “Health” and “safety” are two concepts (or is it one?) which seem to be missing from this account of the modern construction world. With all the frustration in the air, fist fights never seem too far away. Unions are unheard of. The GOs, many of them, we are told, wiry little men from eastern Europe – all sinew and cigarette smoke – are not only bullied but badly paid, very badly paid.
In the middle of this chaos and harshness and through a bitterly cold Berlin winter, Paul and Shane do what they must, while diverting themselves with strange visual games, leaving silent messages for each other of shapes, structures and angles, made up with tubes and bricks and pipes, in odd corners of the workplace – engineering in-jokes: they are both, it seems, conceptual artists manqués, lost souls in a shouting, bleeding, grunting, sweating, swearing building-site hell.
“We don’t stop till we stop.” And so Paul and Shane work on through illness and injury and of course more and more things go wrong – though they are often, just about, put right again, not by the shouting bosses but by the dignified (international) solidarity and common sense of the site workers, who for the most part realise that they are in this mess together, as they have been in many others before.
Paul’s main solace in all of this is the company of his girlfriend, Evelyn, a German-Irish woman whose father realised he couldn’t stand his native country any more and settled in Leitrim. Evelyn is in Germany to learn how to be a curator. (She will curate art objects, not cheeseboards.) She likes Ireland – which is to say that she likes its physical aspect – but in a broader sense she can’t stand it, finding it “a hysterical and insincere place”. The welcome her father received on settling there, she thinks, was largely based on the fact that he was a German and therefore “the opposite of an Englishman”: it was “a welcome laced with hate”. Paul’s relationship with Evelyn is conveyed with considerable delicacy. It is a fulfilling and a tender one, the tenderness just slightly sharpened perhaps by the fear of loss.
The secret games with Shane aside, Paul is something of a philosopher of shape and structure:
I dislike reinforced concrete as a building material. I distrust its secrets … I prefer working with steel or timber. These materials are more explicit, more mathematically pure to me.
He is also interested in the structures of language and various shards of German-English glossary are offered up to us periodically and gathered in an appendix. This feature of the book is built on the commonsense platform that knowing some German is rather desirable when working with mostly German tradesmen on a German building site. One should make an effort, even though one of Paul’s co-workers prefers it when he sticks to English as he can’t bear listening to him mixing up genders and case endings. Das Platte is a concrete slab; die Platte is a steel or timber sheet. The difference could be important. Paul is also interested in the branching of words and meanings: die Hand is the hand; handeln to handle; die Handlung the act; der Griff the handle; der Begriff the concept; der Handgriff movement of the hand etc. (This is a game which can be played with many languages, however, not just German: take a sheet of paper and write down as many meanings as you can think of of the word get, alone or in combinations … get by, get up, get over, get back, get down, get across ‑ perhaps two sheets of paper.) One sharp observation, however, is that the placing of the German verb (or as often verbs) at the end of the sentence forces people to listen carefully to pick up the meaning. And in German business, listening, deliberation and consensus are more highly valued than elan or risk-taking.
Not a huge number of literary novels tackle the world of work. Philip Roth did it very successfully with compelling accounts in his American trilogy of the skills of the glovemaker and the mineralogist. Duncan’s world is a more down-to-earth or down to muck, blood and sweat one, in spite of the aesthetic temperament of his protagonist, who seems to be, to use terms scaled down to my own more basic level of mechanical/spatial understanding, a square peg in a round hole. Out of this rather unusual material Adrian Duncan has crafted a quiet, beautifully written, intellectually provocative and compelling story, an assured blend of mastery and mystery.