The following is from Hanna Johansson’s Antiquity . Johansson is a Swedish writer and critic who writes on such topics as art, literature, and queer issues. Antiquity, her debut novel, won the 2021 Katapultpris and was short-listed for the Borås Tidning Debutant Prize.
For three days on the square they’d been showing the world championships in harpoon fishing on a screen in front of the city hall. There was a stage for the competitors and a metal scaffolding that cast discs of sunlight on the functionaries as they bustled around in preparation for the evening. Day after day, the same order of events, like a ritual. There were white tents, tall tables, sponsor champagne and mineral water; there were loudspeakers and a winners’ stand; there were lanterns being lit. When the sun came down, sailboats anchored in the harbor, and the men came with their sons. The men with taut stomachs and sunglasses atop their heads, the sons with bony knees, ruddy cheeks, thick hair, sad eyes. These were wealthy teens, dressed in sweatshirts and baggy swim trunks. They were well-mannered and bored. A vacation memory added to many others, to recollections of beach toys in white nets, Coca-Cola with slices of lemon and ice, calamari, french fries, seasickness, the brown bottle of Piz Buin sunscreen and the green bottle of aloe vera that came after.
The men took great interest in the events. The blue rectangle beneath the palm trees, the underwater footage, the fish weighed on the stage. The competition itself was underway elsewhere on the island, in the sea that lapped the rough beaches. On film the divers resembled gods with their harpoons and fit bodies, the wetsuits that made them smooth, nonhuman. They shone their flashlights into the underwater caves, making them look like crypts full of gold and precious stones.
The sons slouched listlessly over the tables. They took off, leaving their fathers; they bled onto the square, where they drifted around looking like they could use something to lean on; the handlebars of a bike, a fence outside of a school. They flung their arms about like they were waiting for someone to rough up or embrace. They were at the end of childhood and at the threshold of life, lonely with their impatient boredom, their painfully growing bodies, the final weeks of the summer at seaside bars, beaches, boats, and cafés, the taste of life’s first coffee: lots of sugar, lots of foamed milk, like drinking sand.
The three of us were on the periphery, under the arches in the back. We were drinking white wine and Coca-Cola with slices of lemon and ice. We were seated so we could see the square, the stage, the screen, the crowd, and the city hall illuminated by spotlights. We stayed late; we stayed as the square emptied and the people returned to the harbor, to their sailboats and their hotels. We stayed as the functionaries cleared out the tables, the amps, and the winners’ stand until all that was left was the scaffolding, bare and mute in the darkness, like a ruin.
We walked home along the shoreline. Helena and Olga were ahead of me, arm in arm, complexly linked. Behind them I felt like a stranger, someone who had picked two people at random to trail, a menacing shadow. I walked like a watcher; I adapted to their pace. Helena and Olga had their names and their boundaries, mother and daughter, their roles and their particular duties, their story. I had nothing. I was a guest.
Helena walked on the side closest to the sea, like a keeper or a prison guard. The wine had made her slow and quiet.
Olga turned around and looked at me one single time during that walk by the sea, and I was scared at the thought of what she saw then, the look I gave her, lonely, caught in the act. I too was slow, quiet.
For three days on the square—it was an image I kept coming back to. I kept returning to the square at night, I kept returning to this beginning of my story that was not a beginning.
It was not my summer. It was not my childhood.
It was a story I told myself, a memory I was preparing for later, one I hoped would give me much joy at some point, and much grief too. It was like the coast when you leave it, the coast seen from the stern of a boat, that last image: a point that recedes until you can no longer see it, until it is one with the horizon, a line drawn between before and after.
I was in the horizon. I was in the sea beneath the sun. I was on the square at night with the low, brown sky.
When I returned to that image, I pictured the uneven colonnade of the palm trees, not from below, but level with the tree crowns, as though I were a giant or a god.
It was warm on the square at night. It was warm on the seaside walk home. When we left Ermoupoli later it was fall, and I was cold. We sat on deck in the gusty dark; Olga was scared of falling overboard, of being snatched by the wind. Helena: don’t be silly. But I understood her fear. There was nothing to separate sky and sea; the black was the black of cherries, it was like moving through time or through the void.
I was sitting between them. We were traveling toward the end and I was sick. I felt sick on the ferry. I felt like a stranger, distant. I fled into memory, or perhaps memory fled into me. I pictured myself and I saw a person for whom there was no hope. I had a first glimpse of the contours not of my death but of my life, the life I had lived up until that moment, the time and the experiences that had come to replace my dreams. A disappointment. I felt disappointed.
I pictured the pigeons taking off, the teens, the illuminated palm trees. I pictured an octopus swimming in the dark. It was not a real memory but it was just as real as a real memory, no different. I could hear my own voice narrating: the sun was so strong you always had to squint a little. I felt reality take its leave of me. I wasn’t there.
Olga did not look at me. She looked straight ahead, hands in her pockets; she looked at the night, the deck, the water, which we could not see but which lay before us. Meaningless hours ahead: there was nothing to say. All that was left was the wait.
We were sitting outside even though it was cold. It was Helena’s idea. She wanted to be out on deck, it was wonderful, it was refreshing. Helena tried to say something and I couldn’t hear; the noise drowned out her voice: the funnel, a vibration as though from an enormous flame somewhere. She had to yell: another time I’ll show you the ruins at Delos, they’re not going anywhere, they’ve been there for thousands of years already.
Excerpted from Antiquity by Hanna Johannson, translated by Kira Josefsson. Published with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2024 by Hanna Johannson