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Interpretation of “A dagger” by Nikos Kavvadias

For this entry, I am picking a poem by Nikos Kavvadias whose translated title is A dagger (Ένα μαχαίρι). I have covered another one of Kavvadias’ poems before: Interpretation of “Mal du Départ”

Listen to Vasilis Papakonstantinou sing this poem in the music of Thanos Mikroutsikos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8I2s0WUQJQ.

Below is the poem, my translation of it, and some philosophical comments.

Ένα μαχαίρι

Εμρηνεία:  Βασίλης Παπακωνσταντίνου
Στίχοι:    Νίκος Καββαδίας
Μουσική:   Θάνος Μικρούτσικος


Απάνω μου έχω πάντοτε στη ζώνη μου σφιγμένο,
ένα μικρό αφρικάνικο ατσάλινο μαχαίρι,
όπως αυτά που συνηθούν και παίζουν οι Αραπάδες,
που από ένα γέρον έμπορο τ' αγόρασα στ' Αλγέρι.

Θυμάμαι, ως τώρα να 'τανε το γέρο παλαιοπώλη,
όπου έμοιαζε με μια παλιά ελαιογραφία του Γκόγια,
ορθό, πλάι σε μακριά σπαθιά και σε στολές σχισμένες,
να λέει με μιά βραχνή φωνή τα παρακάτω λόγια:

«Ετούτο το μαχαίρι εδώ που θέλεις ν' αγοράσεις,
με ιστορίες αλλόκοτες ο θρύλος το 'χει ζώσει
κι όλοι το ξέρουν πως αυτοί, που κάποια φορά το 'χαν,
καθένας κάποιον άνθρωπο δικό του έχει σκοτώσει.

Ο δον Μπαζίλιο σκότωσε μ' αυτό την Δόνα Τζούλια,
την όμορφη γυναίκα του γιατί τον απατούσε.
Ο Κόντε Αντόνιο μια βραδιά το δύστυχο αδερφό του,
με το μαχαίρι τούτο εδώ κρυφά δολοφονούσε.

Ένας Αράπης τη μικρή ερωμένη του από ζήλεια
και κάποιος ναύτης Ιταλός ένα Γραικό λοστρόμο.
Χέρι σε χέρι ξέπεσε και στα δικά μου χέρια,
πολλά έχουν δει τα μάτια μου, μ' αυτό μου φέρνει τρόμο.

Σκύψε και δες το μια άγκυρα κι ένα οικόσημο έχει,
είν' ελαφρύ για πιάσε το, δεν πάει ούτε ένα κουάρτο,
μα εγώ θα σε συμβούλευα, κάτι άλλο ν' αγοράσεις.»
- Πόσο έχει; - Μόνο φράγκα εφτά. Αφού το θέλεις, πάρ' το.

Ένα στιλέτο έχω μικρό στη ζώνη μου σφιγμένο,
που ιδιοτροπία μ' έκανε και το 'καμα δικό μου
κι αφού κανένα δε μισώ στον κόσμο να σκοτώσω,
φοβάμαι μην καμιά φορά το στρέψω στον εαυτό μου.
A dagger

Singer:  Vasilis Papakonstantinou
Lyrics:  Nikos Kavvadias
Music:   Thanos Mikroutsikos


I always hold tightly on my belt,
a small African steel dagger,
like those the Arabs keep playing with,
which I bought from an old merchant in Algiers.

I remember, as if it were now, the elder shopkeeper,
who looked like an old oil painting by Goya,
standing beside long swords and tattered uniforms,
uttering in a hoarse voice the following words:

"This dagger you want to buy,
legend has surrounded in strange stories
and everybody knows that those who once had it
each killed one of their own people.

Don Basilio killed Dona Julia with it,
his beautiful wife who cheated on him.
Conte Antonio his unfortunate brother on a night,
with this dagger he secretly committed murders.

An Arab his young lover out of jealousy
and some Italian sailor a Greek boatswain.
It fell from hand to hand and it reached my hands.
My eyes have seen a lot, but this one terrifies me.

Check the small anchror and the family crest it has,
it is light, hold it, it weighs less than a quarter,
but I would advise you to buy something else."
- How much does it cost? - Just seven francs. If you want it, have it.

I have a small dagger tied to my belt,
that whim made me own it
and as I have no-one to hate and kill in this world,
I fear that some day I might turn it against me

The story of a cursed knife is something that we would expect to come straight out of a folk’s tale. To the inattentive eye, this myth has nothing to teach us. It is provided for our entertainment. While it likely succeeds in that regard, it actually has a profound message for all of us. We can relate to its narrative even if we normally do not play around with daggers made out of steel and sold in exotic lands.

The dagger symbolises the obsessions humans have. It is an object we are passionate about. Something we want to acquire and claim as our own. The cursed knife is our most cherished possession because we assign it such special value.

[ Watch: Harmony, tranquillity, non-ownership ]

We obsess about all sorts of things. A fancy car, whether our hairstyle wins compliments, if our dress code impresses, the prestige we command at the workplace and among our neighbours, whether we reign supreme in an argument over some otherwise trivial issue… Our obsessions govern us by virtue of conditioning our behaviour.

Consider this case. Someone is waiting for their crush to fall in love with them. Meanwhile, the crush is getting married in another country with someone else. Our fellow clings on to an unrealistic expectation. It is an unsustainable situation. Life is tough, especially when we are delusional. Nobody is entitled to anyone. This person’s obsession—this enchanted dagger—is committing yet another murder: it is undoing them from within, eroding their sanity, snuffing out the fire of their enthusiasm.

Sometimes we seek to acquire the valuable asset for the vanity of declaring it our own. When we succeed, we name ourselves the winner and think we have achieved something special. We are not being mindful though. We have no sight of the bigger picture in that we do not understand how this victory is sowing the seeds of our destruction. In winning the meaningless points, we are sacrificing a part of our self. We are being ruled by the object of our desire. It makes us do its bidding. It determines how we operate. It objectifies and instrumentalises us. It owns us.