How to win literary prizes

Issue 3/1991 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Terveessä ruumiissa (‘In a healthy body’, Gummerus, 1990)

Later, as he mulled over the moments just before it all happened – with himself delivering his appreciative peroration to the prizewinner in the front row – the Chairman of the Prize Committee could recall no warning sign. Antti was tense, of course, but, considering his artistic sensitivity and the hundred-strong audience, there was nothing abnormal about that.

The Chairman was improvising from scanty notes: only the finishing touch was written out in full:

‘And so, with immense gratitude, we shall store up your many achievements in our hearts and minds.’

At the Chairman’s invitation, Antti approached the platform, but he also turned towards the tightly packed auditorium and met the glare of the video-lighting. It pointed up the large beads of sweat pearling the prizewinner’s forehead. Here he was, in front of the definitive witnesses of his life-work.

Descending from the rostrum, the Chairman turned towards Antti. The prizewinner’s eyes were fixed over the Chairman’s head, as if on some detail in the audience-filled gallery.

Antti’s forearm protruded from his elbow like a robot’s forceps. The Chairman inserted the end of the Scroll of Honour in the space between Antti’s thumb and forefinger. The fingers pincered together.

The chairman held out his hand as a gesture of congratulation. No response.

The applause continued. Slightly taken aback, the Chairman stepped to one side. The secretary of the Prize Committee, a young lady, was already on her way to the platform, bearing flowers.

She gave Antti a congratulatory hug, the roses still in her hand; they dangled over Antti’s shoulder and down the back of his dark jacket.

The audience’s applause intensified. The lighting spotlighted the couple. The video-cameraman toted his camera closer.

The secretary brushed Antti’s cheek with her lips, and Antti’s arms relaxed as if from extreme tension. They whipped round the secretary’s body, the right arm round her waist, the left flying round her neck on to her shoulder; and the prizewinner’s lips fastened on to her neck.

The audience became ecstatic.

‘Great, Anttil’ called a cracked football-crowd voice from the auditorium.

Afterwards the Prize-Committee Chairman was unable to calculate precisely how long things stayed this way. His only clear memories started from the point when the applause was dying away. A few individual claps lingered on, and suddenly there was total silence.

In the centre of the platform, Antti and the lady-secretary resembled some weird dual sculpture decked out in clothes. The Scroll of Honour was sticking out from her shoulder-blade like a clipped wing. More video-shots were unlikely, as the Town Clerk had leaped from his seat, signing the cameraman to stop, which he did.

The lighting was still blazing. The audience was abuzz. The Town Clerk climbed on to the platform. The secretary was straining to catch the Chairman’s eye. Towards the rear of the auditorium people were getting up for a better view. This created a surging wave-like billowing; half the audience was already on its feet.

‘Enough now, Antti,’ the town clerk whispered.

No reaction from Antti.

Pulling himself together, the Prize Committee Chairman also came over, and the two men stood there, looking like some sort of frame for the couple.

‘Antti, let her go,’ the Chairman begged, keeping his voice down.

‘What on earth are you up to, Antti?’ The Town Clerk whispered.

‘Susa, can’t you get away somehow?’

‘He’s sort of’ – her strangled voice came back – ‘locked.’

‘Antti, can you hear me?’


The Town Clerk leaned over the couple and breathed to the Chairman:

‘Must be something psychological!’

‘Save your psychology for later!’


‘Do something!’ gasped the secretary faintly, and the flowers slipped from her hand to the floor behind the prizewinner. The dark red of the roses contrasted vividly with Antti’s black shoes. The Chairman gathered up the bouquet on to the edge of the lectern.

More than half the audience was now on its feet, and when the ones still seated saw the others standing, they too rose to stare. Only the invited guests on the front row remained sitting.

‘We can’t hang about like this for ever,’ the Chairman burst out, unable to keep his voice down any longer.

‘What is all this?’ the Town Clerk kept repeating.

‘Antti, can you hear me? You’re ruining the Scroll of Honour.’

The whole auditorium was abuzz: it was like the chatter in the foyer before the show starts.

‘Impossible to prise them apart.’

The Town Clerk’s attempt to loosen Antti’s grip on the secretary foundered.

‘Is it some sort of fit, do you think? Can you see any foam?’

‘No, not a thing. Susa’s got that high collar on, of course. But I’ve never heard any talk of symptoms.’

‘Wouldn’t necessarily be symptoms. Everything has to start.’

‘What are you rabbiting on about,’ the secretary wailed. ‘Quick, quick!’

‘But what, what?’

The Chairman was thinking: ‘Have to get them carried out.’

‘No: no carrying,’ the secretary quailed. ‘I’ve got a skirt on.’

‘Of course you have.’

‘Antti! For the last time, Antti!’

‘Uuhmm. Uuhmm,’ Antti said.

‘Susa.’ The Town Clerk was whispering into the woman’s free ear: ‘Supposing we tried to do it upright?’

‘Or – what about you walking backwards, Susa?’ the chairman ventured.

‘Or sideways?’

‘He’s squeezing so tight. He’s stuck fast.’

‘Susa, tell us how we can do it.’

‘He’s… locked on to me… like someone drowning.’

‘Antti! Wake up! How can you do this?’

‘Uuhmm. Uuhmm.’

‘Up here on this platform!’

‘Well, let’s at least get them down from here.’

The couple rose vertically in the men’s grip. They remained like that down to the stalls.

The Town Clerk went over and whispered to two male members of the Prize Committee. They came over, buttoning their jackets en route.

‘Other way round,’ the secretary hissed. ‘Point my feet back – towards the stage.’

The whole audience was now on its feet, even the invited guests. Silence reigned. Antti, lips still glued to the secretary’s neck, was assigned the underneath position; a good arrangement: his rigid body made a perfect catafalque for the secretary.

Gripping Antti’s upper-arms, the Prize-Committee Chairman and the Town Clerk led the way – as indeed protocol would require – and the two Committee Members brought up the rear, clutching him by the ankles.

All eyes, from both sides of the central aisle, followed the advance of the cortege, as it slowly drew near the double doors standing open at the back of the auditorium. A dim light percolated in from outside.

The doors closed behind the procession. The audience sat down, and a clamour immediately broke out. It subsided as the Town Clerk hastened back to the lectern. The lighting engineer, who had already extinguished his lights, now switched them on again. The Town Clerk threw him an irritated wave.

The engineer extinguished the lights.

In the empty foyer, with the cloakroom-girls boggling from behind their counters, Antti tried to straighten out the badly crumpled, sweat-stained, Scroll of Honour.

The pallbearers were still panting, a step or two away from him, still at the ready, in case of need.

The secretary examined her neck in the foyer mirror and went over to the cloakroom-girls, asking for powder.

Antti’s voice came echoing round the unnaturally acoustic foyer:

‘Is that it then? Where do they serve the coffee?’

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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