On the rooftops of Berlin
In his debut novel, Lorenz Just describes growing up in 1990s Berlin-Mitte that comes across as a sort of derelict urban adventure playground. The local youths explore, hang out and waste time there – the way kids used to do before the Internet age.
By Holger Moos
Lorenz Just, born in Halle an der Saale in 1983, moved with his family to Berlin’s Mitte district in 1988. This area of Berlin is now the gentrified centre and tourist hub of the reunited capital. Andrej, the hero of Just's first novel Am Rande der Dächer, who is about eight years old at the beginning of the story, lives with his parents and two brothers in a pre-war building, likewise in Berlin-Mitte. But his family live not so much together as side by side.
Just draws on his own life experiences in his coming-of-age novel. In an interview with the taz newspaper, the author recounts: “We didn't have to rebel against our parents or shake off the fetters of growing up in East Germany because we took our first steps towards independence by delving into the city, so to speak, in the years of upheaval following German reunification. To us, chaos was a natural state of affairs. It seemed like things had always been that way.”
AN URBAN ADVENTURE PLAYGROUNDAndrej spends his adolescence at loose ends, aimless and adrift. His surroundings in 1990s Berlin-Mitte seem like one big derelict adventure playground. It’s all a bit run-down, but the future is wide open. Anything goes, at least it feels that way, though his actual options are limited at best. Time is very relative, life isn’t yet determined by our present-day digital time sinks. Not a trace of self-optimization yet: just hang out and hang loose is the watchword.
Andrej and his best friend Simon drift around the neighbourhood. No need to build tree houses, there are plenty of deserted buildings for them to explore. The rest of the time they horse around with airsoft guns and, later on, break into newly gentrified penthouses just for kicks.
“WHAT DO YOU hope TO achieve HERE?”When squatters move into an abandoned building nearby, Andrej and Simon are fascinated by their strange way of life, which is new and alien to the boys. But they’re even more fascinated later on by the USA. At the end of the story, after the turn of the millennium, Andrej is planning to spend a year on an exchange programme in the States, the land of opportunity that so many young people hanker after. But as with many a hankering, they have no concrete goal to pursue there. It’s just that anywhere seems better than here in Berlin. When asked what he actually hopes to achieve in America, one of the youths answers with the question: “And what do you hope to achieve here?”
In his debut novel, Just shows the protagonists in all their helplessness, including their inability to express themselves and their aimless activity, thereby poignantly capturing the feel of adolescent forlornness. The narrator – namely the older boy, Andrej – recounts and occasionally analyses his experiences, but doesn’t resolve any of his issues. Only one thing is clear in the end: the sad certainty that life goes on, but the days of even a wasted youth are numbered and irretrievably gone at some point.
Lorenz Just: Am Rande der Dächer
Köln: Dumont, 2020. 272 S.
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