The Knife

Issue 4/1989 | Archives online, Drama, Fiction

First performed in 1989 at the Savonlinna Opera Festival. Veitsi (‘The knife’, 1984) is set in Helsinki. The opera is composed by Paavo Heininen and the libretto is by the novelist, poet, playwright Veijo Meri. Veitsi is not a traditional opera, but ‘music-drama’. Introduction by Austin Flint

ACT I

(Pamppu takes Havinen and the Poet to the Publisher’s office)

PUBLISHER
Hello there, you great novelist!
This is really a surprise,
as though you’d blown the door off its hinges.

PAMPPU
These pages are terrific. Take a look at them.

PUBLISHER (reads)
Mnn, rapids… mnnn… wingless iron…
I don’t publish poems.
They’re easy enough to read
but hopeless to publish.
Anyway, the best of them slip out of
the book before you know it,
and nobody pays for them.
Who’s this H.G.
in the dedication?

POET
Hildur Grönq….

PAMPPU
Hildur Granquist, the loveliest woman
in the world.

PUBLISHER
You’re right there.
I loved her too,
but that was a long time ago.
Sign here.
Take the slip to the cashier
and she’ll pay you fifteen hundred marks.
Do you know Hildur?

PAMPPU
Everybody knows Hildur.
Here’s the nephew. (indicates Havinen)

PUBLISHER
Well, let’s get her into the picture,
set her pulse racing a bit.
You’ll get six hundred from the cashier.
I’ll reserve a table at a fine restaurant
and send a copy of the text to the compositor.
So long. Drop in again.

(Pamppu drags his followers out into the reception room)

HAVINEN
I’d like to thank …

PAMPPU
Don’t stand on ceremony
now that your poems’ll be published.
I did what I promised.
Give me that slip and we’ll head over to the cashier.

(To the Poet, who gives him his receipt)

POET
But I don’t want …

PAMPPU
We’re going to celebrate this together.
You’ll go to your bank,
goddamn it, and then to the restaurant
and tell them we want a table for six.

(Pamppu roughly shoves Havinen on his way)

POET
I’m not going with you.
Give me back those receipts.

PAMPPU
But it’s your party,
your chance to show off,
to flash some real money and
show how creative you are.

POET
I’ll show that on paper,
or however I like,
with a knife or a ball,
with sand or earth,
and then you can look at it all you want.

PAMPPU
Throw the crazy man out of here,
that first man.
It’s Adam, and I went and
screwed his precious Eve and
fed the apple to the snake.

POET
Nobody can be like that.
You’re a nobody.

PAMPPU (and others) Now the shit’s hit the fan
and plopped on to the floor.

(They wrestle. Pamppu drags the Poet out. The receptionist follows.)

PAMPPU
I must be leaving
since I’m taking this fellow with me.

(The Poet breaks free and rushes back to the Publisher.)

POET
Like a fierce man
the storm lifts, lifts, lifts
a birch branch,
rustles just one limb of an aspen.
Why do I notice such things?
Because I too am fierce.
Because alone I often tremble.

PUBLISHER
You’re a tough guy.
You’ll never die.
You weren’t even born.
You emerged from some blast furnace
with a batch of steel.
You came here to stay
like a meteorite from the sky.
Now write about death and
think about birth.
And search for the most
feminine woman in the world.
Write about death!

(The Poet looks away, thinks. The others wait.)

RECEPTIONIST (softly)
Don’t talk to him that way.
He’s not a dictaphone.

PAMPPU
Poets sure have sex appeal.
What the hell makes them so attractive?

PUBLISHER
Women fall for bums,
they’re weak, harmless.
Women hate strong men
who won’t negotiate.

RECEPTIONIST
Don’t talk about him.
Let him speak.

(They wait a while, then suddenly…)

POET
Birth is a tough one, to pass through
a tight, bony gate, your head bloody,
mouth eyes full of blood, mucus, piss, to suffocate,
artificial respiration, to hang upside down
in empty hollow air, noise, stench,
light bulb, tortured
unconscious woman, knife bright as a blow-torch,
Ku-Klux-Klan of doctors and nurses.

Death is a tough one, to go through all this again,
to shove yourself out, all of you bit by bit,
to suffer, crush life, spirit, body,
resistance of flesh, bones, sinews, veins,
to let cut, burn,
smash through the elements: water, fire, air,
through friction, human relationships, fate, hope,
expectation,
through compression into a universe so vast that
nothing reaches, fits, agrees, invites, rejects.

(Silence. Everyone solemn. The chorus takes up the Poet’s words. Then the Poet continues.)

That’s why life is repugnant, because people are always
passing through doorways, coming in, going out,
saying this or that for someone to answer, for still another
to ask, letting needle, thread, bullet, letter, priest,
God, morning, evening, spring, autumn come and go.
(The Poet goes to Pamppu, who puts a hand on
his shoulder and leads him away. The
Receptionist follows. The Publisher remains
standing and holds out the sheaf of poems.
The Receptionist takes them away. The
Publisher takes a bottle from his desk drawer
and slowly switches off the lights.)

PUBLISHER (to the Receptionist standing by the door)
Take these to the compositor
and get hold of the bookbinder.
I want them clothbound, in the very finest material.
– –

ACT II

(Matinée in an imposing building. In the audience, middle-aged people wearing dark suits. In front, the Publisher and his authors. Onerva [friend of Hildur] is sitting next to the Publisher’s empty chair and is wearing her fur coat. Male chorus singing. Applause.)

PUBLISHER
If a publishing house is
a stock exchange and a temple,
there on the temple side
are these poets
to whom poems open up
like the world at morning.

I have asked them to describe
their most marvellous visions.

VUORI
Mountains are temples,
yet you cannot enter their
frigid darkness
but must stay on the roof overhead.
The peak of Ararat thrusts
to mid-sky, to the very zenith,
its long silhouette like a
thread of gold.

PUBLISHER
Now the poetess will recite.

PAMPPU
The waves move, not the water.
It is borne by ocean currents.
In the depths six currents
run…

PUBLISHER (interrupting)
I asked the poetess.

PAMPPU
I was quicker.

(Audience laughs wildly and rudely.)

(The Poetess exits, slowly and deliberately. The Publisher hurries to escort her out, at the same time blowing a kiss to Onerva.)

PAMPPU
That was a reverse ‘entree’,
the most impressive ever seen
in this country.

(The Publisher motions Jyrinen to come forward.)

JYRINEN (blushing, sweating, and trembling, takes a swig from a hip-flask)
Clara Petacci and Eva Braun
were sitting together one evening,
unmarried wives.
And Hitler and Mussolini
caught sight of them
through the doorway,
turned, and quietly slunk away,
conceding defeat
to ephemeral beauty
framed by silence.

MAN IN THE AUDIENCE
Mr Jyrinen’s view
is totally incomprehensible.
Are you a fascist?

AUDIENCE
Fascist and communist!

POET
Where’s Hildur?

ONERVA
No Hildurs here.

PUBLISHER (quickly)
Now our youngest poet will
tell us something about himself.

POET (rising)
 When I was at Suomenlinna,
 a woman stood on the ramparts,
looked far out to sea
                                                                 AUDIENCE: We can't hear!
and gave a wave of her hand.
(Poet retreats to the background. Audience begins to laugh after a stunned silence.)
AUDIENCE
 Speak a bit louder!
 We can't hear you back here!
PUBLISHER
 And what happened then?
 We're bursting with
 curiosity.
POET (standing again)
 She had no sleeve
 on the arm she was waving.
 Her arm was bare.
PUBLISHER
 Now we've all heard
 what the poet sees.
POET
 Her hand fell.
 I didn't want it to rise again.
PUBLISHER
 On behalf of everyone,
 I thank you.
POET
 When the hand was lowered,
 she began desiring something else,
 waiting for the moment to leave.
 Now time had passed
                                                          AUDIENCE (Roars with laughter.) Oh, oh, oh how very sweet.
 and I wanted to stop it. 
Again she lifted her hand, 
 covered her neck with her naked arm. 
 (Where's Hildur?)
 She covered her nakedness 
 with nakedness. This is my
 most beautiful vision.
                                                         ONERVA
                                                         Let him speak.
                                                         AUDIENCE
                                                         How disgusting!
PUBLISHER
 All right, everyone! Applause!
(No one claps.)
POET
 And on the red skirt
 white blotches flowered,
 swung with her every move.
                                                         AUDIENCE (general hubbub)
                                                         Oh, what a boy!
She appeared to drape on herself 
 hundreds of skirts. 
 Each shadow in the cloth
 revealed what it concealed.
 That was my most beautiful vision.

PUBLISHER
Which of these is more beautiful?

POET (amid more growling and hubbub from the audience)
There are hundreds of the most beautiful,
none of the more beautiful.
Ugliness is only here
in these terrible stares
from living corpses.

AUDIENCE
Read Eino Leino!
Some first-rate poets!

POET
The dead are most alive
for they’re no longer able to die.
They’ll attack you on stairways
And bring fearful dreams.

AUDIENCE
Don’t let him talk like that!
Why do you invest good money
and expectations in him?
Bring us good, sublime writers,
uplifting poets who will
inspire our minds and
nourish our hearts.

(Pamppu and Vuori try to lead the Poet away. Onerva runs onstage and takes the Poet by the arm.)

ONERVA
Hildur’s gone to the Café.
She’s waiting for us there.

(The poet is already running. Onerva follows prettily, throwing a kiss to the Publisher, who dissolves in euphoria.)

PUBLISHER
This matinée has shown
that poetry is still alive
and arouses strong feelings.
Now let’s all go home
and take a good book
and read those poems
in which there is old silver
and ageless gold
and the rhythm of the gondolier.

(General departure, racket. The Publisher begins to conduct the departing crowd like a chorus.)

EVERYONE
Poetry is alive
like a lush stand of birches.
Poetry is alive
as the human breast breathes.
Poetry is alive
like old silver.
Poetry is alive like a rhythm,
poetry is alive!

Translated by Aili and Austin Flint

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