Monthly Archives: May 2022

“The will to be different”: Kirsty Bell’s Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin

City-writing is always a challenge, and writing about one of the most over-determined cities of the world is particularly challenging. For example, what is left to write about Paris that can still unsettle a reader’s sedimented expectations, after all the novels, memoirs, and films? How is one to write about Paris so that the account will not seem one or more of trite, repetitive, intentionally contrarian, or just trying-too-hard-to-be-fresh (for an answer, see Eric Hazan’s A Walk Through Paris!)?

In Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin, Kirsty Bell take another approach towards documenting the political geography of one of those heavily over-determined cities: Berlin. When you say “Berlin”, the mind already conjures up a host of images: the Wall, of course, occupies disproportionate mental real estate, but there’s also Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary Berlin, Berlin of the poets and artists in the Weimar era (the Berlin of Berlin Alexanderplatz), Nazi Berlin (Berlin of the bunkers), 1960s hipster (West) Berlin, and finally, the Berlin of contemporary imagination: a palimpsest with each era written over the previous one, but a palimpsest that comes before you – as in the case of Paris – more or less fully-formed.

In this context, however, Bell weaves together a personal memoir of loss and a broken marriage, the history of her own century-and-a-half old house on the banks of the Landwehr Canal, and the modern history of Berlin itself (indeed, the name Undercurrents is both literal and metaphorical: literal for the number of canals and rivers that flow through and underneath Berlin, and metaphorical for all things beneath the surface, whether it is the history of one human life, or the history of a city). The book thus moves through three frames: Bell’s life in Berlin, the story of a house and those who lived in it, and the story of a city, with each intersecting with, and informing, the other two. There is, of course, a risk in this approach, a conflation in which individual events may get imbued with a significance that they do not seem to merit, or world-historical events uneasily forced into the frame of an individual life, and this risk is especially great when thinking about a city like Berlin, where memory – and its suppression – plays such a crucial role. But for the most part, Bell succeeds in avoiding these traps, holding the frames in tension – albeit generative tension – with each other.

Through the history of the house and its inhabitants, we get an impressionistic view of the economic, social, and cultural development of Berlin over a century-and-a-half: for example, Bell contextualises the seemingly “neutral” architecture of old Berlin buildings – a “front half” that has more light, and a “back half” that has less – within the industrial era, where the back half was rented out at lower rates to (predominantly migrant) workers, while the front half was rented out to wealthier Berliners. Although the idea was to place the rich and poor in proximity with each other, the effect, of course, was a hardening of class divisions.

The Landwehr Canal, primary site of Undercurrents. Photo by Lienhard Schulz.

Then there are the house’s owners: tracing that genealogy through Berlin’s city archives, Bell finds – to her discomfiture – that within the same family that owned the house in the early-20th century, one of two brothers was a paid-up member of the Nazi party even before Hitler’s ascent to Chancellorship, while the other remained absent from all National Socialist records. Through genealogy, Bell explores the impact of the Nazi years upon the city (“Each family, each individual was forced to define their priorities in the face of a regime which allowed for no weighing up of personal ethics or differentiation” (p. 147), and its lasting impact ever since, in terms of memory and trauma. It is in these parts of the book that Bell is at her most empathetic – and evocative: “The Berliners who survived the war years were trapped in a victim-perpetrator quandary where innocence was sucked down into the muddy waters of complicity and ankles were bound by implication.” (p. 184)

Historical vignettes – and characters – walk off and on Bell’s stage. Radiating outwards from her home, we learn about the ruined Anhalterbahnof station, which was once the pride of industrialising Germany, gateway to both North and South – but also the place from where the death trains set out for the concentration camps during the Holocaust (a memorial plaque near the ruin testifies to this). But moreover, as Bell tells us, right behind the ruined station was the Hotel Exelsior, from whose rooms Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht started and edited the newspaper of the Spartacus League. Historical eras separated by just over a decade, but a world apart: through the medium of (political) geography, the book moves a little judderingly between times and places, mirroring Berlin’s own discontinuous history. As Bell notes about Berlin’s relationship with history: “Many bridges to the immediate past were broken and only certain parts were allowed to be remembered.” (p. 190)

The ruins of Anhalterbahnof, with the former Hotel Exelsior – now an apartment block – behind. Photograph by Tonythepixel

The only somewhat unconvincing parts of the book involve various references to feng shui, and spiritual energy that Bell tries to weave into her three frames. It is at these places that the personal and the intimate threatens to overwhelm the narrative somewhat: the importance of feng shui to Bell’s ability to make sense of her own life notwithstanding, its extension to the two other frames – house/neighbourhood/canal, and Berlin itself, feel unwieldy, and occasionally forced.

Ultimately, the success of a “city-book” of this kind – I feel – turns upon how it makes you feel when you walk upon the streets of the city itself. I spent two days wandering up, down, and around the Landwehr Canal while reading Undercurrents. It was a deeply immersive experience: whether in the field around Gleisdeieck station (beautifully described by Bell as a place whose “success lies in its suggestion of activities but non-proscriptive layout” (p. 283), by the canal (“No sunrise over the mountains or sunset at the lake can outshine the sweet dawns and dusks over the canal’s spring and autumn foliage”, (p. 38) Bell quotes), or by the ruins of the Anhalterbahnof, it made Berlin past and Berlin present come alive in different ways (I felt like I could almost see Rosa Luxemburg through the glazed windows of the former hotel), an experience both heightened and deepened by Bell’s three frames, and her evocative language. Undercurrents shows you that for a city like Berlin, the ocean of stories never really dries up!

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Filed under European Writing, Germany

“Nothing is whole or holy, least of all African literature”: They Called You Dambudzo, by Flora Veit-Wild

I first read (and reviewed) Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger a few years ago, and fell in love with this strange, indefinable, and incandescent piece of work. His observations on language – and the use of English by outsiders (master’s tools/master’s house) to serve their purpose – were acute and brilliant, and there was something iconoclastic about the way he took on legendary figures such as Ngugi in his claim that “if you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.”

Over the years, in my foray into literature from the African continent, Marechera’s name cropped up repeatedly, a long shadow (even though the man himself died young – in the 1980s – of AIDS). So when I heard about the existence of “They Called You Dambudzo”, a memoir by Flora Veit-Wild, I picked it up immediately, and ended up reading it in an extended twenty-four hour sitting. It reminded me of some of the other great literary biographies and memoirs in the field: Obi Nwakanma’s “Thirsting for Sunlight” (about Christopher Okigbo, who also died young), and Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place.

Flora Veit-Wild is a German professor of African literature, the editor and executor of Marechera’s “literary estate” (so to say), and also – as it turns out – was romantically involved with Marechera while living in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. This gives the memoir a particularly unique flavour: Flora Veit-Wild plays the roles of biographer, critic, and lover – all at once – while also negotiating the whole range of issues that come with being a White person writing about a Black writer. For the most part, she walks the line very well.

In the first part of the memoir, we get a snapshot of Veit-Wild’s childhood and youth in post-war West Germany, her revolutionary activities during the 1968 student uprisings, the black-listing of her and her husband from academic jobs because of their association with militant student radicalism, and their final departure to a newly-independent Zimbabwe to – in a sense – rebuild their lives. This part of the memoir may not be all that interesting to those focused on Marechera, but I found it a fascinating window into what it meant to be a left-wing radical student in post-war Europe, and the price that was paid by those who were genuinely committed to the political cause (or, a range of causes – from being anti-Vietnam war to campaigning for the Zimbabwean freedom struggle).

Flora Veit-Wild

The first part of the memoir also informs the rest of it: Veit-Wild’s intense engagement with – and ultimately estrangement from – revolutionary politics creates an “elective affinity” between her and Marechera, who was one of those few Zimbabwean writers who didn’t buy into the nationalist project upon Zimbabwe’s independence, and stood outside it as a critic – a position that triggered his own estrangement and alienation from the post-colonial Zimbabwean literary scene.

Veit-Wild’s account of her romance with Marechera is the most intriguing part of this memoir. Marechera as an individual does not come out of it particularly well – indeed, his behaviour towards both Veit-Wild and Veit-Wild’s husband, Victor – both of whom allow him to stay at their home for an extended period – is full of emotional blackmail and verbal violence, which at times makes for difficult reading. This seems to be a courant with Marechera’s personality in general, and his behaviour towards the world at large – simply distilled and amplified in the context of his intense personal relationship with Veit-Wild and Victor. However, the really interesting part is not that; it is that this period coincides with Marechera’s most fruitful literary output, some of which is inspired by his equation with Veit-Wild. Veit-Wild herself switches between the roles of lover and critic – for example, at the height of their romance, he sits down with her for an extended interview about his literary “philosophy” and style, with both of them seemingly able to seamlessly transition into this more arms-length, “professional” relationship. What is equally interesting is that through Veit-Wild’s eyes, we get an entirely fresh perspective into some of Marechera’s most famous poetry, which was written for her – or at least, written with her in mind. I don’t think I know of any other memoir with this unique positioning – where the memoirist is the subject’s literary critic and lover, at the same time!

The final part of the memoir follows Marechera’s death of AIDS (it turns out that he probably passed on HIV to both Veit-Wild and Victor), Veit-Wild’s return to Germany and her taking up a Humboldt University professorship, her guardianship of Marechera’s literary through editing and publishing work left unfinished or unpublished upon his death, and her own struggle with clinical depression. As a story of a complete life – or rather, three complete lives, if you count Marechera and Victor – this is an account that is filled with generosity, warmth, and humanity.

Perhaps the only issue where the memoir stumbles a bit is Veit-Wild’s engagement with the question of race. As I write at the beginning, Marechera is Black; Veit-Wild is White. There are fraught issues here that cannot be brushed aside. Veit-Wild seems to move between being almost *too* self-aware about this, to not being self-aware *enough*. At particularly difficult moments, she appears to dismiss the issues too quickly; and at other – seemingly more innocuous times – agonise at great length about the racial equation between them. This is understandable, but it does add a few jarring notes to an otherwise beautiful memoir.

But perhaps that is the point. After all, as Marechera wrote, “nothing is whole or holy, least of all African literature.”


See also: “On Dambudzo Marechera: The Life and Times of an African Writer“, by Helon Habila; Me, Dambudzo: A Personal Essay“, by Flora Veit-Wild.

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Filed under African Writing, Zimbabwe