Annett Gröschner
translation by Jenny Piening


Klara Li Moves House


Klara Li lives in one of the last unrenovated apartment buildings in Prenzlauer Berg. Unlike the building opposite, whose pores have been sealed in yellow paint, this old building can still breathe, and when it exhales it emits the smell of brackish water, rat poison, coal and old potatoes mixed with a whiff of piss. The air is alive with the ghosts of the child that scratched along the wall with a key right up to the fourth floor, the Red Army soldiers who let out a volley of machine-gun fire below the ground-floor windows, and the hundreds of tenants who had to use the outside toilet on winter nights. The house is older than the invention of staircase toilets. Of course there hasn’t been a loo in the courtyard for ninety years; instead, toilets were disguised as corner cupboards on the staircase landings. Fat people had to squeeze in backwards in order to come out again forwards. Klara Li is so thin you could fit two of her in her toilet cupboard. The double doors to her abode, which is more than just a flat, are open: the art has taken on a life of its own and has slowly oozed from the top floor and down the four flights of stairs like treacle. Sometimes Klara Li transforms her living room into “Amarantha’s Salon”, when she sings or lets others talk, make music or exhibit their artwork. Klara Li is an exhibit in herself: she sits in a cup with a little crown on her head. The saucer is sewn to paper with cross-stitches. Klara Li is the cross-stitch lady as a Gesamtkunstwerk. Perhaps she uses this technique to ensnare people. I’ll stitch a web in your heart. Apparently she used to be a professional shaft embroiderer and today you can still recognise Klara Li by her shoes. Sometimes school children come to rummage around in her repository and to sing while they embroider bags. Stitching and singing, clattering and ringing writes Klara Li in her emails, and ekes out a living from her jewellery out of old junk and trash. When she can’t make ends meet she sells day-old bread or lottery tickets. Up to now, paying the rent hadn’t been such a big problem.

All gone, all gone …

Today Klara Li has to move out, because with its staircase toilets, dilapidated window frames, floorboards covered in ten layers of paint, bulbous tiled stoves and dripping taps, the house does not conform to market requirements. What looked like the last squatted apartment building is, in the end, just another piece of real estate.

During her final soiree at home, Klara Li banged stones to cello music and sung again: whimsical poems that seemed to seep out of cracks in the walls and unfurl to the sound of the music. Klara Li called it Amarantha’s Calamity.

This Sunday we carry Amarantha’s Salon piece by piece down to the courtyard. The hired dogsbodies are annoyed about all the tat and junk that they have to carry down sixty-four steps. They tell us about a removal during which they had to lug a man’s ten-year-out-of-date tins down four flights and then up another floor flights. They say it with a side-glance at Klara Li, who only keeps empty tins, not ones containing mouldy food. Klara Li keeps a lot of things that others don’t need anymore. Fifteen unusable things can always be turned into a work of art. Sometimes the objects have a decades-old story to tell. Ribbons, lace, sequins, pearls, foil, spools of thread, paper, wood, cardboard gold and platinum erupt out of the rooms and from the attic and jangle down the stairs carried by the dogsbodies. The men can no longer tell the difference between the bulky waste in front of the bins and Klara Li’s treasures. Maybe they don’t want to. They are used to built-in kitchens and tidily dismantled bedrooms. The only thing that appeases them is the fact that the bags are lighter than boxes of books. I carefully pack up the wall-hanging made out of slips of notepaper, one slip sewn to another with cross-stitches, bits of information that only have themselves as recipients and together amount to one or two years of life – everyday memories encapsulated in shopping lists and children’s scrawls. I’ve got no idea, says Klara Li, where it should all go. Maybe in the cellar. Or on the computer as COMMANDS AND MENUS. Downstairs, the hired men are stacking the boxes and chests into a removal van and unloading them again two streets away. Klara Li and her son have found a place to live with a group of homeless people who decided to renovate an apartment building themselves. It could have been worse.

In the Schönhauser Allee, the only thing to remain of Klara Li is a sign on the front door, held together by cross-stitches.


“Klara Li zieht um” by Annett Gröschner in Parzelle Paradies: Berliner Geschichten (© Nautilus, 2008). Translation © Jenny Piening


Annett Gröschner was born in 1964 in Magdeburg and studied German language and literature in Berlin and Paris. She has won many awards for her fiction, including the Anna Seghers Scholarship of the Berlin Academy of Arts and the Erwin Strittmatter Prize of the state of Brandenburg. She is the author of several short story collections and two novels, Moskauer Eis and Walpurgisnacht . Gröschner also writes documentary literature and plays, and works as a journalist for various daily and weekly newspapers and radio.

Jenny Piening studied English and German at Oxford University before working as an editorial assistant for the Daily Telegraph in New York and then branching out into travel writing and editing for Condé Nast Traveller and Time Out Guides in London. In 2005 she moved to Germany, where a sideline in translating soon turned into a full-time career. In 2012 she joined Transfiction, a collective of literary translators in Berlin.


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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013