This is Johannes Groschupf’s second novel. The author, born in 1963, earned his living as a travel journalist until the age of thirty, when, during a trip through the Algerian desert, his helicopter crashed and burst into flames and he emerged as the sole survivor. Groschupf’s extraordinary adventure and recovery from severe burns became the subject of his first novel, published in 2005 under the title Zu weit draussen but not so far in English. Now he tackles something very different.
Hinterhofhelden takes us into the characteristic ‘Hinterhöfe’ of Berlin, the courtyards which connect turn-of-the-century blocks of apartments and where much of the residents’ life takes place. The story is set in the 1980s, before the fall of the Wall, in the district of Neukölln, where workingclass Berliners, immigrants, and students live side by side. This third-person narrative revolves around Odefey, a naïve young man from West Germany, who arrives in Berlin to go to university there. He finds a flat, set in deepest Neukölln, by accident, which sets a precedent for his subsequent, seemingly random, adventures. Very soon after his arrival he gives up his studies and spends most of his time drifting through the streets, photographing scenes of everyday life with his newly acquired camera. He makes a series of chance encounters with typically feisty neighbours and soon becomes integrated. He is chased by a sex-crazed middle-aged housewife but restores his reputation and earns everyone’s respect by agreeing to take on the bully of the block in a staged fight, which he ends up winning by accident. There is also a proper love story, when Odefey meets Meetje, a student and fellow resident of Neukoelln, and after various crises decides it is time to grow up.
This novel excels in bringing Neukölln to life, its atmosphere, smells and noises and its idiosyncratic inhabitants. It is refreshing to read a book that highlights the sense of community and ordinary, everyday life in this area which, in the German press, is so often portrayed simplistically as a place of deviant behaviour and seemingly unresolvable social problems. It stands in the tradition of a wave of ‘alternative’ Berlin novels, which started in the 1990s, and explores its theme with a sense of humour and real empathy. Well worth considering.