The Russian Revolution may be a familiar subject to readers, the horrific conflict and the fate of the Romanovs now particularly solemn and bloody history, but never before has the subject been approached by a blasé Georgian con man. Kvachi Kvachantiradze uses the war as a personal playground, cheating, stealing, and womanizing his way across Russia and even Europe. Author Mikheil Javakhishvili created a roguish Georgian hero who had a hand in the most important plots and schemes of revolution-era Russia to hearten the Georgian people, who in reality were steam rolled in the Soviet takeover of their country. Even more intriguing is the fact that an English translation hasn’t existed until now due to censorship issues. Donald Rayfield promises a wild ride through previously taboo territory with his translation, and isn’t shy about delivering.
The story begins in 1890s Georgia, following the rambunctious boyhood of Kvachi, characterized as a saint and future great man by his family. The reader comes to understand this means a great and enterprising criminal: Kvachi blackmails the women he woos into helping him with fantastical schemes for money and power. One of his most memorable exploits involved sleeping with his uncle’s wife after his uncle takes him in, then extorting her for money and trinkets. Kvachi soon loses interest in her, instead moving in with an elderly woman whom he convinces is being hunted by anarchists; he offers to sell her belongings for cash to pay them off. The whole story centers around mildly criminal yet gloriously pulled off schemes that take advantage of people’s ambitions and fears concerning the chilly political climate. Kvachi makes a great deal of money playing these political odds, then, of course, loses it all on women and drinking. When he sells several different people a grand piano and charges them all for moving fees in order to pay for his schooling, his family is convinced of his greatness and of the lucrative future he has in store.
Kvachi moves from his little town of Samtredia to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, then Odessa, and finally to St. Petersburg, the “big time.” On the way he runs betting pools, continues blackmailing women, runs an elaborate insurance fraud, and finally obtains some legal capital and becomes quite the powerful young man. The most entertaining twist is when Kvachi befriends Rasputin and makes himself invaluable to the ridiculous and primitive figure. In order to keep his schemes going Javakhishvili’s hero can’t keep hold of a penny for very long, constantly involving himself in risky schemes and wildly expensive debauchery. Every time Kvachi loses it all he gains it back with interest in some new, roguish plan. He remains a clever and lovable character despite his rap sheet, and the reader looks forward to his new criminal enterprises.
It isn’t until Kvachi tries to rape a fellow student that the reader cools towards him, realizing just who their fond hero actually is. Kvachi goes into a love-struck fever over a pretty young student who refuses him continually, leading him to finally follow her home and assault her. Luckily for the girl, Kvachi had been drinking and she is able to fight him off. Kvachi then spreads horrible rumors about her in revenge. At this point the reader vastly reevaluates Kvachi’s title of “hero.” He is revealed to be a criminal, after all, the kind that may be jovial and entertaining but who in the end is capable of terrible things.
Javakhishvili, in retrospect, didn’t truly set out to create a hero, more a character to wreak revenge on the Russian government and then the Soviets who so wronged his country. Kvachi is not a hero, or even an anti-hero, but a trickster figure meant to cause the most trouble possible to those who never saw consequences for their actions against Georgia. With that in mind it is easier to forgive Kvachi of some of his more sinister exploits, and definitely easier to understand Georgia’s vindictive hatred of the government.
Rayfield, the English translator, did reveal that originally Javakhishvili planned the adventures of Kvachi to be serialized, which also holds with the livid attitude of Kvachi and his readers. It would perhaps make more sense to have kept the serial format, as the continual rollicking adventures lose their originality after the fifteenth retelling of Kvachi’s patterned crimes. In what some might consider an assault against good literature it is possible to imagine Kvachi’s tales as a wonderful series of graphic novels. The format rather lends itself to excitement and adventure, and would successfully translate the ambiance of Javakhishvili’s original serial concept. In any case, Kvachi made not only an entertaining but also a thought provoking read, especially for those interested in Russian history or looking for instruction on running scams.
Review of Kvachi: A Novel by Mikheil Javakhishvili, translated by Donald Rayfield
January 2015, Dalkey Archive Press