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.
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 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!