I first became aware of the the novel Kvachi by Mikheil Javakhishvili after reading this great review by The Millions writer Matt Seidel. As I’ve lately taken to reading picaresque tales and I’ve always had a general interest in books that are banned – for twenty years Soviet authorities prevented it’s publication – I was excited to read this newly translated into English work. I started it with delighted anticipation which grew into bemusement and, as the novel continued, ended with general disappointment. This wasn’t necessarily a failing on the part of the author or the translator but, I believe, due to the nature of the eponymous character of the novel. What do I mean? Read on, but beware of spoilers…
According to the provincial folk wisdom of palm reader Madame Notio, the bad weather during and after the time of Kvachi’s birth and the manner in which he holds things indicated that all of his enemies will be defeated and that he will accomplish personal greatness. As the reader soon sees, however, the character of his enemies and the nature of his abilities don’t make him into a hero crusading in the name of some ideal or even an anti-hero resisting the crushing social mores and habitudes around him. Kvachi is, instead, more a villain that seeks to continuously enrich himself or gain status at the expense of others with little to no thought of the consequences.
Kvachi’s rags to riches to rags to less riches than before story is largely a manner of how he is able to swindle people out of their money or evade police and military officials searching for him. Whether it is obtaining property titles through elaborate ruses, pimping his discarded lovers, stock-market manipulation, exploiting nepotistic government networks or murder – Kvachi cares not. All is fair game, unsurprising to the astute reader that can read the foreshadowing in his first words: “Me, me.” If limited to his small town he would be forced to sublimate some of those grandiose qualities into something more socially useful, a la Edward Limonov’s character Eddie turning to poetry in Memoir of a Russian Punk, however Kvachi has grand ambition. Kvachi manipulate news presses through money and intimidation by his friends/henchmen to help establish the notion of him as the Pierpont Morgan of Georgia. He has people pay to consult him on various matters and uses the knowledge whenever he can to benefit himself and his gang. However he and they leave Georgia and establish themselves in St. Petersburg after they’ve won the heart and mind of Rasputin.
The long section of the novel wherein Kvachi comes to meet, befriend and manipulate Rasputin is, as a non-Orthodox person, fascinating to read. While Rasputin’s role in the actual administration of the final days of the Russian monarchy is largely overwrought and mythical rather than historical, his character in the book gives a portrait with verisimilitude to what transpired. Once in the Tsar’s circle Kvachi takes on the role as the defender of the throne. Once he sees that the Bolsheviks will come to power, however, he then assassinated Rasputin and becomes a leading figure in the October revolution. Unsurprisingly once this force oriented to the people’s will rather than that of the divine comes into power, Kvachi finds his days numbered. There are simply too many people that have been harmed by him and are aware of his schemes for the new government not to notice. He stays in order to gain as much gold as possible for transport out of the country and then starts a series of misadventures across the upper social circles of Europe.
It is in these scenes amongst the upper echelons of “polite society” that the novel shines. Rather than Kvachi exploiting the trusting and ignorant near-poor folk he steals from those that have been born into aristocratic families. Here Javakhichvii satirizes the manners, customs, and attitudes of the people that have gotten there by no other dint than the luck of their birth into it to great effect. They are shown here to be indolent, non-productive back-biters ever willing to exploit others any way they can. It’s these dynamics that complicates Kvachi. While it’s possible to be indignant at him for his crimes against the smaller people and the government, his scamming of these people is shocking but, also somehow fair. Going from county to country, he burns all the bridges in a place then moves on. He has no allegiances except to that of money, a goal which is never sated, and to his comrades.
That the major secondary characters in the novel never receive much character development isn’t surprising. For the author, and just as it is for Kvachi – it’s all about Kvachi’s desires and money and everything else is secondary. This is, for this reader, unfortunate as the lack of real character development outside of retrenchment in the face of adversity is in large part a similar reason that I found Wolf Of Wall Street to be disappointing. Lacking an “Aha!” moment wherein the protagonist comes to realize that their immoral behavior has harmed people and from that realization obtains a greater sense of social responsibility means that Kvachi is merely the account of a sociopath motivated by greed and ambition. Even when depicting his one truly heroic act, leading a nearly defeated band of Russian troops to capture Turkish forces, he is depicted as possessed and not of his right mind.
Considering all of the above I can understand, though not agree with, the Soviet censorship of the novel. In a similar way that Anita Bryant decried the sexual denigration of women and cultural values of urban gangs, one could see in Javakhishvili’s writings 80 years prior and halfway around the world similar views towards women and the lionization of criminal enterprises. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Kvachi is an early 20th century gangster, but his hustling abilities is what allows him to live a privileged life despite his being born into a poor, provincial family. Considering that his likelihood of upward mobility is so low if he were to play by the rules of the law and polite society and that so many of the people that Kvachi encounters are playing this game or a variation of it as well, it becomes harder to judge Kvachi as a villain pure and simple. In the end, he is just someone who cares only about himself – which is in itself a dangerous concept for a newly formed collectivist government.