If you read one 500-page classic of Georgian literature this year, make it Mikheil’s Javakhishvili’s galloping 1924 epic, Kvachi Kvachantiradze. Contemplating the exploits of its titular conman, who has the “acute nose and instinct of a pedigree hound,” brings to mind the description of Lucien de Rubempré, the protagonist of Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions: “He’s not a poet, this young man: he’s a serial novel!”
Unlike Lucien and the Bildungsroman heroes of similarly panoramic novels, Kvachi makes no claims to be an aesthetic creature. On his European voyage, the thieving rogue stays in bed to peruse his pornographic collection rather than visit the Strasbourg Cathedral, wonders why someone doesn’t glue some arms onto the Venus de Milo, and says the following of Auguste Rodin’s “Thinker:” “That man is thinking up some great plot, I know. I wish I could meet him, he’d be a good comrade.” (What better proof that all criticism is a mode of autobiography?) And yet the boorish Kvachi does share one crucial trait with his Balzacian forbears: he is incapable of living a plot-free life.
In his brief introduction to newly released English translation, the scholar and translator Donald Rayfield writes of Kvachi’s author’s sad fate during the Stalinist regime’s Great Terror of 1937. Javakhishvili was tortured and executed after praising the courage of a poet who shot himself rather than denounce his fellow writers for their alleged anti-revolutionary tendencies. One wishes that the laws of picaresque fiction applied to life and that Javakhishvili could have magically been blessed with the same Houdini-like powers of his unscrupulous protagonist, who cheats death many a time throughout his larcenous career.
What the slippery, often-hunted Kvachi lacks in integrity he makes up for in ingenuity. On the run from the Red Army’s secret police, he draws up a search order to “find and arrest the notorious counter-revolutionary, saboteur, and bandit Kvachi Kvachantiradze.” Kvachi himself then stops in at the local police departments of each town to check if the wanted man — that is, himself — is in the area. “My god,” says one of his associates, “So you’re searching for yourself, then?”
Apart from revealing Kvachi’s brazenness, the clever ruse points to something more fundamental about his restless character. The episodic Georgian novel dramatizes Kvachi’s fruitless search for himself, for some feat that will satisfy his insatiable desire for power, women, and money, and finally “bridle his fate’s headstrong Pegasus.”
Kvachi is born into a family of provincial inn-keepers on a portentous day that is “deceitful, false, and treacherous.” (Kvachi will be all three.). The young Kvachi has the “unusual ability to divine people’s characters” and lives according to the following maxim: “Never refuse anybody anything, but only honor your promises if it’s profitable for you today or tomorrow at the latest.”
The novel, which began as a series of sketches, hurtles from one of Kvachi’s scams, scrapes, or seductions to the next, pausing every so often to drive home the monstrosity of its hero. Kvachi is a philistine, attempted rapist, blackmailer, and cold-hearted murderer, not a lovable cad. He begins his unsavory career with lower-stakes swindles and acts of thuggery in his homeland: scamming shopkeepers, defrauding his elderly landlady out of her house, setting up a fake anarchist group to extort rich students or convince one stubbornly honest teacher to pass him and his friends. The future crimes carried out by him and his loyal (to an extent) co-conspirators range from inspired — robbing a bank while posing as a film director shooting a bank robbery scene — to unimaginative and brutal—blackmailing a lover with pictures taken of them in flagrante.
His schemes are all excessive, indicative of a compulsion to defraud that goes beyond mere greed. When the tone-deaf Kvachi rents a grand piano for a summer, he sells it not once but three times before skipping town. In one of the worst HR decisions of all time, an insurance company hires Kvachi to sell policies. He quickly figures out that bilking clients is hard work and takes out several policies of his own. A remarkable string of bad luck naturally ensues:
“We never had any illness in our family. The day before yesterday my father died. He passed away so suddenly that he couldn’t say a word. The next day our house in Kutaisi burnt down. Now I’ve had a bad accident.”
Kvachi provides its share of local Georgian color, but there is little provincial about it. Georgia, which enjoys a brief spell period of independence between the Tsarist and Soviet regimes, is a country “not even a hundred people on earth have even heard of.” As such, it soon proves unsuitable to Kvachi’s outsized ambitions, prompting him to travel first to Odessa, then on to Russia: “…everything in mysterious and infinite Russia was prepared for him, longing and waiting, like an unhappy woman for her fairytale prince.” To devise a persona compatible with this destiny, Kvachi simply anoints himself Prince Napoleon Apollonovich Kvachantiradze. In an entertaining illustration of the narcissistic logic that allows him to inhabit his characters, he subsequently sees the real Napoleon Bonaparte’s golden dinner plates on display and buys a similar set for himself: “Well, am I worse than him? I have his name!”
In St. Petersburg, Kvachi quickly ingratiates himself into Grigori Rasputin’s inner circle. When not participating in orgies with the debauched (and well-endowed) holy man, he takes charge of lucrative government contracts in Turkestan, facilitates international arms deals and, oh yes, foments the Russian Revolution, which erupts just in time to save him from the first of his death sentences. (The Revolution prompts Javakhishvili to momentarily rise above Kvachi’s cynical machinations and show, through a remarkable allegory about two Russian brothers, how world historical events are driven by more profound forces than venality.)
As he languishes in a cell awaiting his hanging, Kvachi is hounded by an impish inner voice urging him to confess his extensive misdeeds. Alas, the rakish sociopath is not one to repent, neither to his interrogators nor to himself: “Leave me alone! The past is past. Why the hell do you want the truth? Anyone can tell the truth — idiots, savages, and babies.”
Kvachi’s self-directed outburst advocates for the primacy of fiction, natural given that he is a creature forged entirely from fictions, beginning with the fake certificate of nobility his father purchased for the family at the age of five. His art depends on bribed newspaper editors, carefully sown lies, and phony mandates. Forced to flee St. Petersburg during the Revolution, one of Kvachi’s crestfallen lieutenants informs him that the only thing he has managed to save are some seals and rubber stamps. Kvachi, aware that having the power to authorize new fictions is infinitely more valuable than the trainful of palace treasures he has lost, reassures his compatriot: “You’ve saved everything!”
So entirely does Kvachi forge his character that when he finds himself on a Turkish battlefield, he suddenly becomes something other than a fraud. Too fickle to be a true poltroon, he miraculously transforms (temporarily) into a real hero:
That instant had reversed and aborted Kvachi’s life and character and endowed him with something miraculous and otherworldly. The old Kvachi had died another one, unfamiliar and new, was born a moment later, as proud and unbending, courageous and fearless as Leonides at Thermopylae, Alexander the Great, or Erekle King of Kakheti, or Napoleon at Arcola.
Despite not being particularly introspective, Kvachi does occasionally sense that his true “personality” is nothing but a bottomless pit of undefined longings. Upon first seeing the Black Sea from a train, we read:
The sea was beautiful at a distance, but Kvachi intuited its treachery, its changeability, and in anticipation he was filled with fear, trembling, and distrust.
The sea’s grandeur terrifies him. Sublimity can’t be manipulated, or conned, or blackmailed. The sea can in no way be channeled to serve Kvachi; at most it can only mirror his own roiling nature. He bears torture more stoically than this insight into the limits of his power and the vagueness of his desires.
We last see Kvachi as the kept man of a Turkish Madame, a fate that somewhat punctures his lofty image of himself as a “free soaring eagle” destined for greatness. In the novel’s final scene, Javakhishvili addresses the aging, and still restless, libertine: “So what do you want, then? I don’t think you know! I understand you, Kvachi Kvachantiradze! I understand you, my Kvachi! I understand you, my little Kvachi! I understand…I understand…” A later, 1934 version would be harsher on Kvachi, telling him to “rot in [his] pit,” but in the original (and in this English translation), Javakhishvili closes with this more empathetic gesture toward his sordid creation, whoever he is beneath his guises.