In her most recent book of memoir and cultural criticism, The Undercurrents, art critic Kirsty Bell begins by dissecting the landscape outside of her apartment window in Berlin, which overlooks the Landwehr Canal on the northernmost tip of Kreuzberg on the border of the Tiergarten district. But she is forced to look down as a snaking stream of water slips between her toes, changing her life forever.
Water becomes the prelude and the metaphor of her prose, when “a large pool of water had appeared overnight on our kitchen floor, so silent and unexpected.” What follows is a reflexive and feminist implosion of domestic perspective, as Bell mines not only the subsurface depths of her personal life, but that of her building’s former dwellers, tracing the city’s unhealed scars.
To expand and personalize her narrative of contemporary Berlin, a place roiling with the potent, omnipresent silence of its unsayable past, its flatlands and riverbeds racked by memory loss and geopolitical displacement, Bell resorts to Feng Shui. The house weeps, because, according to her reading of the ancient Chinese praxis, “leaking is a sign of trauma”.
The swamp is a quintessential metaphor for Berlin, and not only because it is built on wetlands. Bell writes: “Berlin’s relative stasis allows for a lethargic pace that both detracts and enables.” Germany’s capital has increasingly served as a global nexus for contemporary artists because of its late capitalist, post-growth economy. It is a vestigial weaving of all-too-human superfluity mired in what Germans call “Frühjahrsmüdigkeit”, the yearly sapping of energy among locals.
While passing through Berlin like an indifferent, high-minded voyeur, Bell blurs the lines that normally divide her life from that of her city with a focus that is sometimes too soft, dragging readers into murky paths that lead further into obscurity. While looking for intentionally hidden architecture, she finds herself “adrift in an infinite scale of greys”.
More like a seamstress, than a historian, as she expressly confesses, Bell’s investigative, nonfiction storytelling is replete with motifs that recur in contemporary art, challenging notions like perspective and context; the definitions of labor and the existential funk of the postmodern intellectual; the expatriate in Europe; the working mother. Inanimate objects take on human characteristics. Their provenance is subject to a kind of exploratory archival research that lends itself to her autobiographical portrait of the flâneuse, or “cultural stroller”–As she writes, a metropolitan woman wanderer, open to chance and the rediscovery of the muse.
At times, Bell changes literary genres, autofictioning the city’s historiography while detailing her private life. She openly speaks of her failed marriage, revealing how they were “unhappy but not unsatisfied” while speaking to the challenges of raising her two boys amid the “disjointed format of our newly broken family”. All the while, she sees the solemn banality of Berlin’s stubborn and hidden pasts with roving, steely eyes. Her wayward attempts to close the gaps separating her life from the traces of the past are oblique, utterly intriguing when not exasperating. She is a foreigner in her chosen city, but the mother of two boys who are not. In her creative excavation of Berlin’s stories, she is trying to find her place while floating atop the psychological currents of her often overwrought, intellectual survivalism.
Bell divided The Undercurrents into twenty-one chapters with thematic titles like, “Ditch”, “Watercourse”, and “Swamp”. Most denote ecological or architectural metaphors. Her Berlin is a ripe field for symbolism. Like all global cities, Berlin’s iconic status is different from the reality that Bell sought to unveil. Every chapter is bookended by a prelude and coda, and seem to overlap and fade into one another, evoking a musical progression of intertwining threads that, like notational composition, are not tasked with the narrative devices of beginning, middle and end, but, instead, capture the emotional truth of being somewhere, even if that place is imaginary.
In one particularly enthralling chapter of underground discovery, Bell is expressly enthused by the pre-photographic forensic evidence of 19th century drownings in the Landwehr Canal, a place that the prototypical flâneur Walter Benjamin explored as a child. He loved its verdant environs as an “urban idyll”, its waters intoning what he heard as a “placid ring”.
However, Bell is more than a realist. In another chapter, she challenges the linearity of time. Her sensuous research unravels the events of April 25, 1945, when the Red Army blew open a section of tunnel below the Landwehr Canal, and bystanders detected the grim tragedy with their noses, the stench of thousands of dead air raid shelterers lingering aboveground. Bell wonders if one eyewitness named Frau R. lived in her apartment on the day she saw the uncountable dead.
Connecting points in history, Bell follows the footsteps of Rosa Luxemburg’s murderers, who threw the body of the Polish-Jewish antiwar socialist into the Landwehr Canal. Luxemburg, like Bell, witnessed poor living conditions in Berlin, which most, especially authorities, ignored, especially in wartime. But unsuspected, flagrant ignorance is a recurring theme through the ages within Berlin society. There is a horrifying scene when Bell recalls Nazi officers celebrating at lavish, private Christmas parties while the Final Solution was in full swing.
Towards her coda, Bell takes her unwitting teenage son to discover unmarked remnants of the Berlin Wall. Bell’s readers can empathize with his boredom, but her enthusiasm does not wane. If she seeks to bridge the public’s past with her private life, the best she can do is to stand in the middle of a rickety, wooden plank and look down into a gaping maw of abysmal emptiness.
In spite of Germany’s tendency to maintain impeccable national records, and Bell’s resolve to understand them, the past remains the past, ghostly and obscure. Her attempts to personalize the stones and papers of Berlin is endearing because she simultaneously demonstrates the futility of her distinctive historiography. Instead of using physical evidence to rebuild the past, she turns inward, tracing the memory of the dead to learn about herself.
Banner: Lienhard Schulz, Unterschleuse, 2006. Landwehrkanal in Berlin-Tiergarten.