Reviewed by Claire Duncan
The city I live in is peppered by building sites. They lend the city an impermanence and flux which I find vaguely disquieting. Just as I learn the complex and winding language of the city, the grammar of its traffic flow and the punctuation of its landmarks and buildings, something changes. The demolition of even one of the building blocks, the signs, that combine to make the whole, is disorienting.
As he works on a construction site in Berlin, the protagonist of Adrian Duncan’s debut novel Love Notes from a German Building Site grapples with these feelings of disorientation in a new and evolving city. Paul is a university-trained structural engineer, whose more rarefied girlfriend has moved to Berlin to pursue advanced artistic studies. ‘Professional’ work is hard to come by in a post-recession Ireland, and so Paul follows her to work on a building site.
Duncan questions the physically lived experience of language and its effects on Paul’s being. Evoking the semiotics of Barthes and the urbanism of Jane Jacobs, Duncan’s Berlin is its language, and its language is the city. As Paul works on constructing another block of the city, another word in its vocabulary, he must navigate the complex grammar of its streets as well as the grammar of the German language.
Jacobs wrote about the sense of flow crucial to a healthy and democratic city, and this is a flow which Paul seeks in Berlin and in the German language. When he trips over his spoken grammar or finds himself lost, his relationship with the city is strained. These languages and sign-systems seem to affect him on a Whorfian level. His thoughts and his sense of himself as a foreigner or as a Berliner, as a ‘builder’ or a frustrated engineer, are dependent on his fluency in the language of the city and that which its inhabitants speak. The invisibility of these factors weighs on Paul who “like[s] objects where their pattern and structure can be seen and where what can be seen elucidates the difference between what is static and what is still.” Although buildings may offer a comforting binary between flow and static, solid and fluid and definite and flux, languages and relationships cannot.
This flow, or lack of it, also impacts upon his relationship with his girlfriend Evelyn. Evelyn has German parents, speaks the language fluently and seems to have a deeper knowledge of Berlin than Paul. Their relationship is deeply strained by their move, and there is a fundamental disconnect between the couple, in their situations and psychological positions. But this disconnect creates one of the novel’s key weaknesses; Evelyn’s weak and thin character. Unless Paul is physically with Evelyn, the reader only sees her character as a two-dimensional inconvenience. It’s telling then that the title’s ‘love notes’ are lists of semantically connected words which Paul gathers as he attempts to absorb the German language. These notes punctuate the novel and are welcome insights into Paul’s interior life: Here is the phrasebook to his mind. They are scraps of the linguistic cartography Paul constructs as he tries to understand this foreign city. But they are too few and tangential to the material within the chapters which follow or precede them; and their form, which might have been a map through Paul’s character, is instead a thread hanging loosely from the page.This is a deeply interesting novel, which reveals as much about the social and professional microcosm of the building site, as it does about the architecture, social and literal, of the modern city. Adrian Duncan’s debut encompasses the worlds of art, engineering, architecture and manual labour and does so with impressive dexterity. I only wish this were a more emotionally nuanced and cohesive novel, which paid greater attention to the interiority of everyone existing in the complex structures we call cities.
Claire Thomson works in communications for an arts funding body. She is studying an MA in Art History part-time and lives in Edinburgh. Her fiction has previously appeared in Dear Damsels.