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Kirsty Bell on the murky Undercurrents of Berlin history

Art critic and author Kirsty Bell on Berlin’s waterways and understanding the city from below.

Photo: J. Baier

When Kirsty Bell moved with her family from the eastern part of Berlin to a larger apartment on the Landwehrkanal, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her home was trying to resist her. Patches of mould appeared on the walls; water kept leaking in. The plumbing was eventually fixed, but Bell had already been set on her journey of exploration, desperate to understand the secrets of the house and the complicated city outside her window. So begins The Undercurrents (Fitzcarraldo), a sprawling work of narrative nonfiction that takes on the history of Berlin from below – its swampy origins, its national traumas, its marginalised perspectives.

The British-American art critic, who has lived in Berlin since 2001, mixes personal reflections with historical and literary research in her lively investigation of the city and its contemporary built environment.

What inspired you to write about Berlin’s history?

Well, I never would have just thought of that because it’s such a cliché. Who needs another book about the history of Berlin? There’s so many. But the book came to me, as if it was something that needed to be written – which hasn’t happened to me before, but I decided to follow that urge. It was all triggered by the change of perspective that came when I moved from one neighbourhood to another, and was now suddenly exposed to parts of the city’s past that I hadn’t directly engaged with before, the Anhalter Bahnhof, for instance. It was a process of research, and navigation, and discovery, and reorientation – of trying to find out for myself what this place really is.

Your book shows Tempelhofer Ufer to be a fascinating place. But it’s not one of Berlin’s more iconic locations, especially for newcomers…

For me, this book was about what it means to be here now, for somebody who, like many other people, has come to Berlin from elsewhere for whatever reason, and who may or may not have gone through a process of coming to terms with the city. When I see a new Berlin history book out by some British military man, it makes me really angry because: what stake does this person have in the city? For me, it was so important that I have something at stake in this place – and it might be personal and subjective, but it’s real.

In the book you write: “I’m less a historian and more of a seamstress”…

That idea of the seamstress was about taking a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach – like you’re putting together a puzzle without knowing what the picture is beforehand. When I began researching, I didn’t know where I would end up. Things that I saw along the canal would prompt me to start scratching around – doing more research, going into archives, reading old literature – and trying to get deeper beneath the surface. I was just following hunches, which was actually really fascinating.

The book’s central motif is water – the canal, the leaks in your apartment, the city’s groundwater as a reservoir for stories. What drew you to that?

It was not premeditated – it was just that this was happening [laughs]. The water kept pouring into our apartment. If you have one or two instances of water damage, then that’s unfortunate. If you have 12 then that starts to feel oppressive. And, if you’re of an imaginative disposition, you start trying to figure out what’s going on and what it could mean. That, together with living on this canal – plus learning about the geological basis of the city, the swamps and sandy ground – and researching the various tragedies that the canal is associated with, well, all these different aspects of water just came together in my thinking.

The watery “undercurrents” also seem to represent the various things Berlin has neglected and repressed throughout its history. Do you think it’s a city with a lot of repression?

I think there’s a lot of difficult things that happened here that people don’t want to talk about. It can be on a personal level, but also on a political and social level. The rebuilding of the Berliner Schloss is a perfect example of that – it’s like trying to create a perfect trajectory from some prelapsarian past to now, erasing everything that happened here in the twentieth century. It’s phenomenally weird that they should have done that. One of the things that got me thinking about repression was that I was reading a lot of literature about intergenerational trauma in German families since the war, including epigenetic research. Every German family has some kind of relationship to the Nazis and the war. So everybody has to come to terms with that – and on the personal level, quite understandably, that has often taken the form of not talking about it. Even while, on the national level, there has been this huge remembrance project.

The motifs of your book seem to suggest that the weight of Berlin’s past isn’t just carried by people whose families have been here for generations – it’s something shared by everyone who lives here.

Yes, I mean, I think it is environmental. Because history is here in Berlin, unlike any other city I’ve been to. The past is so conflicted here, and it’s not just this one monolithic black spot of the Nazi era. The difficulty and suffering go far beyond that – and that’s part of why I found it interesting to write about city planning in the book, to ask where did these plans go wrong? [laughs] These decisions get made about how the city is laid out, or other decisions get made that also have an impact on the landscape. And then that’s the environment we all live in.

Now that the book is out, do you still walk around digging for historical clues – reading plaques, looking up street names and so on?

Oh, you know, I had to tone that down a bit [laughs]. It was getting quite tiring to constantly be analysing the place that you live in. And it’s not like you write the book and then it’s over, you know? I keep finding new interesting material that I could have put in if I’d carried on researching – but if I had, it would have become a massive, completely unreadable tome and readability was always my aim.