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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Mikheil Javakhishvili

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To purchase Kvachi

Title: Kvachi
Author: Mikheil Javakhishvili
Genre: Novel
Written: 1925 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 538 pages
Original in: Georgian
Availability: Kvachi - US
Kvachi - UK
Kvachi - Canada
Kvachi - India
Das fürstliche Leben des Kwatschi K. - Deutschland
  • Georgian title: კვაჭი კვაჭანტირაძე
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Donald Rayfield
  • This translation incorporates some elements from the 1934 censored/revised edition

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Our Assessment:

B+ : rough at the edges, but good subversive fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Kirkus Reviews . 15/12/2014 .
Publishers Weekly . 9/2/2015 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "If the writing seems a touch fusty, thatís a product of the time and not of the translation, and underneath it all, Javakhishvili is playing a dangerous game of political criticism that comes out into the open late in the tale (.....) A lost classic of Georgian writing, of considerable interest to students of the early Soviet era and Russian Civil War." - Kirkus Reviews

  • "(G)iven its treatment of the Russian elite, it's a grim marvel he was able to escape the authorities so long. (...) This is a classic novel that deserves to be read." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Kvachi is a good old-fashioned rogue's tale, chronicling the (mis)adventures of one Kvachi Kvachantiradze in early twentieth-century Georgia, Russia, and beyond. The setting and the tumultuous times -- leading through the First World War, the Russian Revolution and civil war, and the early Soviet period -- aren't entirely unfamiliar, as numerous Russian and the Soviet authors of the period chronicled these in often similarly outrageous stories and novels, but the Georgian angle adds a less familiar perspective -- and Javakhishvili (who would be executed under Stalin's regime in 1937) puts his own entertaining spin on all this.
       Kvachi was already precocious as an infant, and much was expected from him; he would not disappoint -- except those, that is, who put their trust in him and his wild claims. Of course, small-time Georgia provided limited opportunities -- he's well aware: "Georgia is too small to contain me" -- and, while occasionally returning briefly, he progressively distanced himself from it in trying to make his way in the world: mother Russia offered considerably more opportunities. Opportunities for fleecing folks, too: among Kvachi's greatest talents is that of conning people -- he's a natural --, and here too a locale that isn't quite as incestuous as Georgia, where everyone seems to know everyone, proves advantageous.
       After some youthful cons back home, Kvacho does have a go of sorts at taking the traditional route, beginning his studies -- law -- in Odessa. But though he and his buddies make a sincere effort at buckling down, well ... "they were Georgians and their enthusiasm gradually waned". Soon enough, Kvachi is making an 'honest' living as an insurance salesman -- ideal training ground, and a task for which he is well-suited:

     He persisted, he pestered, he pursued, he wore his victim down and, once he had marked him out, gave him no rest until he had signed him up and tied him down.
       He even insures his father -- and has him fake his death -- in an elaborate final con to fleece his own employer, once he's ready to move on. From Odessa Kvachi heads to the Russian capital, Petersburg, where he live it up in high style; his financial wheeling and dealing make for his reputation, as one magazine puts it, of: "Our Morgan" (as in J.P.). Yes, "Kvachi the businessman, Kvachi the financier, Kvachi the shareholder" enjoys great success -- for a while. But, as happens repeatedly, his whole house of cards collapses
       Kvachi's life is all about cash-flow. He goes for -- and often achieves -- the big coups, but he's not particularly good at actually handling money. He burns through vast amounts of it -- whatever is at hand, regardless of how much. He enjoys the high-life -- as high as he can get away with -- but lives only for the day, making little effort at proper investment or management. Easy come, easy go, indeed. Kvachi is actually very generous, too -- always throwing money around, when he has it (and sometimes throwing it around when he doesn't -- he's generous with other people's money, too) -- but it is an unsustainable lifestyle. Not that he seems to mind the repeated collapse of his fortunes -- not that he should, maybe: he always has the next con up his sleeve.
       Eventually he even takes Europe and America by storm -- he even: "tried out the geishas" in Japan --, leaving city after "kvachified" city in his wake:
     From now on Kvachi Kvachantiradze, under a dozen different surnames, was racing around the world. Sometimes he was Prince Bagration, sometimes the Afghan emir's son, sometimes Count Tishkevich, sometimes a Persian Qajar prince. Who can assess or describe his sleight of hand, his versatile handiwork, his subtlety and acuteness.
       Javakhishvili gives it a go, though this is a novel that races about as well, often only skimming the surface of Kvachi's cons, and even describing the more elaborate ones quickly. What others would use to fill an entire stand-alone book -- such as Kvachi and his buddies convincing a bank and the police that they are filmmakers, making preparations to film a bank-robbery scene, and then using that as cover to actually rob the bank -- here are just another in the very quick succession of harebrained (yet often successful) cons Kvachi pulls off.
       Kvachi remains almost always focused on the next big con, with a bit of seduction and taking care of his friends and family on the side. He admits: "History's never been my thing", but he lives in times when history can't be ignored, and he gets pulled in too. He befriends, of all people, an even larger-than-life figure than he is, Rasputin, whose proximity to and influence with the royals is obviously something Kvachi finds hard to resist. As Javakhishvili has it, Kvachi plays a significant role in some of Rasputin's doings -- as well as in his end.
       It doesn't end there, either, as Russia's descent into the First World War and then into revolution and civil war chaos also draw Kvachi in. Indeed, Javakhishvili claims nothing less for his hero than:
Read modern history, in print or not: you won't be able to read in any book, newspaper, or manuscript even two words about Kvachi's exploits in Russia's great revolution. True, historians do concede, but only in private conversation, that Kvachi helped with money and advice, but they have denied outright the most important fact: that Kvachi gave the signal for revolution and issued the unforgettable order: "Begin !"
       Of course, pretty much everything that Kvachi does tends to be self-serving -- though adjusted for the prevailing circumstances -- and so even his most heroic exploits, such as when he winds up in actual battle, just happen to put his talents in the service of both his own survival and the greater good.
       Kvachi understands:
But you've go to keep an eye open to join the winning side, spit on the loser, and congratulate the winner all in good time.
       In revolutionary Russia it can be hard to tell which side has the upper hand -- "Russia has gone made", Kvachi notes -- and he even shows a bit of patriotic fire. Briefly independent after 1917, Georgia couldn't stay out of Soviet clutches long, the British helping them hold out briefly but then leaving, leading to the inevitable:
Up till now we had two paths: either Russia or Europe. Now wwe're left with one: the Moscow path, which is Red and thorny.
       Of course, Kvachi can adjust to almost any conditions, and the New Economic Plan of the 1920s affords him quite a few opportunities: "NEP has revived the old convenient and profitable ways". Which at least works out for a while .....
       Kvachi isn't an entirely harmless rogue: he has blood on his hands -- willing to resort to murder to escape prison (and, admittedly, an imminent hanging-sentence), for example -- and his treatment of the women in his life is rather shocking, right down to the final arrangements he makes when most of his plans have gone bust. His conscience doesn't seem to trouble him, and Javakhishvili seems sympathetic to the nearly-everything-goes (lack of) ethics, which makes it a bit hard to sympathize with the character. The gullibility of nearly everyone Kvachi encounters does offer a bit of justification: whether pompous wealthy folk or women with unrealistic romantic ideals, everyone seems to almost want to get taken by Kvachi and his outlandish claims and promises.
       The rush of adventure, in very tumultuous times, and the range make for an entertaining read. Beyond that, in post-tsarist Russia, the novel also takes on a sharper and more political edge. Kvachi may be an opportunist, but as Javakhishvili repeatedly shows, idealism was in limited supply, and none of the sides particularly pure. (Indeed, Javakhishvili did not take his of own advice in his portrayal of the victorious Bolsheviks -- an attitude that would come to more than haunt him, leading to his death in Stalin's purges just over a decade later.)
       A nicely sweeping novel of Georgia and Russia (and, to some extent, Europe) in the first decades of the twentieth century, Kvachi has a bit of a rough feel to it: much of it originally published as separate stories, it has been fused together into a complete novel, but doesn't quite flow like it might have had it been a novel-project from the beginning. Still, it's good (if occasionally disturbing) fun and quite the wild ride.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 January 2015

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Kvachi: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Georgian author Mikheil Javakhishvili (Micheil Dshawachischwili; მიხეილ ჯავახიშვილი) lived 1880 to 1937.

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© 2015 the complete review

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