Mikheil Javakhishvili: კვაჭი კვაჭანტირაძე (Kvachi)
This book was originally a collection of sketches. Javakhishvili decided to rework it into a novel in 1924 and this novel was published in 1925. As it glorified pre-war France and condemned the Russian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Georgia, a new version was issued in 1934, heavily censored by the Soviet censors. Even in 2011, the reissue only used the 1934 text, not the 1925 one. This translation uses the 1925 text.
The hero of this book, Kvachi Kvachantiradze, is a thoroughly scurrilous rogue but, like many a literary rogue, a charming one. He charms us and he charms the people he meets, who seem to be not only unaware of his treachery but even thank him for his help. The book starts with the day of his birth, an auspicious day. There is a heavy thunderstorm. A tree is broken in two by lightning and the only other inn in town, a rival of the inn of Kvachi’s father, Silibistro, is destroyed. The baby Kvachi is born already uttering the word me. A fortune teller forecasts that he will be a great man, get what he wants and bring fortune to his family. Apart from a brief digression about how his parents came to marry (they are cousins), we immediately follow Kvachi’s early life. He is a very precocious child, walking and talking early, and helping in his parents’ inn.
Silibistro is snobbish and is certain that he descends from nobles but cannot prove it. He spends a fortune on doing so, till he finally gets a man to issue him with a certificate of nobility. The man is a notorious swindler but Silibistro is happy with his certificate and becomes even more snobbish. Kvachi is sent to Kutaisi (the second largest city in Georgia) to study and it is here that he develops his sharp ways. He stays with a couple, he an elderly man, she, Tsviri, much younger. As they do not have a child of their own, Tsviri starts mothering him but, as he gets older, mothering becomes loving and he becomes her lover, for which she gives him gifts. Little does she know that she is not the first but she soon finds out that he sees (and is paid by) other women. Kvachi is very astute with money. He borrows at an opportune moment, promising to repay promptly but, of course, never does. When someone is short, he offers to lend them money but never does.
From earning money as a gigolo, Kvachi and his friends, soon upgrade to extortion and are indifferent as to whom they extort from, including poor widows. Eventually, he makes enough money to get his parents a house, while he moves off to Odessa, nominally to study law. He does start studying but, as Javakhishvili points out, Georgians are easily distracted and lazy and all they really want to do is to carouse, which they do. He still carries on his various methods of extortion, becoming more sophisticated in his approach.
Women continue to be his weak spot. He falls in love with Mme Lapoche (i.e. French for The Pocket) and gives her lots of presents but she and her husband are smarter than Kvachi. He tries selling stoves and then insurance (which, of course, leads to an insurance scam.) The gang moves to St Petersburg, where he has more trouble with women, almost raping a young woman who resists his charms. He even manages to meet Rasputin but is then horrified, when his latest girlfriend would rather sleep with Rasputin than with him. However, he gains Rasputin’s confidence and thus access to the Tsar,which allows hm to perpetrate a whole range of scams.
Soon he is off again, travelling around Europe – to Warsaw, Vienna, Paris and ending up in London, where money and scams keep him busy. By the start of World War I, he is back in Russia where we learn, though history has kept silent about it, he is responsible for killing Rasputin and starting both the February and October Russian revolutions. He joins the Reds and the Whites, sometimes both on the same day. It is not surprising that the Soviets objected to this book. He gets very much involved in both revolutions though not forgetting to make large sums of money for himself. Inevitably, things do not always go well.
This really is a thoroughly enjoyable book. Our hero thinks up every kind of trick and scam possible. He is totally amoral, having no qualms about cheating anyone he can, with the exception of his gang members and the women he loves (quite a few). He is imprisoned on several occasions, usually cleverly escaping. He faces death by hanging, by being shot and even by being eaten by wolves but somehow manages to get away. He earns millions and loses millions. He is selfish to the extreme, yet we cannot help finding him a loveable rogue, hoping he escapes his latest misfortune and gets the girl. There have been many other novels of loveable rogues – Illywhacker is an obvious one – but I cannot think of any other one where the hero manages not only to enrich himself (on many occasions) but also is responsible for starting two of the major revolutions of the last century. I cannot understand why it has taken so long for this book to appear in English, except, of course, that it is is in a difficult language from a small country, but we must now be grateful for Dalkey Archive Press for publishing it in English at last.
First published in 1925
First English publication by Dalkey Archive Press in 2015
Translated by Donald Rayfield