Reading in Translation

The Hero That History Forgot: Mikheil Javakhishvili’s Kvachi, Translated by Donald Rayfield

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Reviewed by Amanda Sarasien

It would seem with tongue in cheek that the narrator of Georgian author Mikheil Javakhishvili’s novel, Kvachi, first recounts the birth of his picaresque hero, Kvachi Kvachantiradze. Intensely audible descriptions of an unprecedented storm, juxtaposed with equally vivid depictions of his mother’s labor screams, lend an epic quality to Kvachi’s entrée, a tone which is only highlighted by the portentous, yet deliberately ambiguous, prophecy which closes the scene, predicting for the hero a future which will far exceed anything his enamored parents could even imagine for him. Yet as we get to know Kvachi, we find the lazy, rapacious and self-serving trickster to be a far cry from the sort of figure history normally elevates. Nevertheless, in choosing to mythologize such a flawed character, the novel calls into question the very notion of greatness, dragging those major players down off their pedestals. And it is the narrator’s ability to elicit the reader’s sympathy for Kvachi in spite of his dark deeds which proves more unsettling still.

As the reader soon learns, this narrator rivals Kvachi in roguishness, albeit from a more passive position. Not content simply to relate the events, the narrator freely editorializes, concluding episodes of the hero’s exploits with folksy proverbs; employs irony and innuendo so deftly that the reader can almost see the storyteller’s wink in every comma; takes on the guise of Kvachi’s most trusted confidante, Beso Shikia, in passages where narrative and dialogue bleed together; and even speaks directly to Kvachi himself, egging him on with overwrought prose when the hero’s ambition flags:

What’s wrong with you, Kvachi Kvachantiradze? What evil spirit has made your heart pound with fear? Who has shackled your limbs? Remember Demir-Tepe! Where are those divine demons who then took you by the arms and sent you flying to the throne of God? Where are the sorcerers who flew you across the fields of Ukraine? Why have they now abandoned you? Now, when you are fighting on your own ground for your own self … Come back, Kvachi, come back! Your soul is desolate, the ice of disbelief has settled in your heart, and doubt is gnawing at your brain …here’s your motor car. Get in and go back to Silibistro … Revive Pupi, who has fainted … Calm Khukhu and Notio. Go, Kvachi, go! (459)

That a translation should capture such a polyphonic voice, one which is both insistently present and impishly removed, all while maintaining a conversational tone seemingly at home anywhere in the world, would be impressive enough. But, as Donald Rayfield points out in his translator’s introduction, the text presented him with challenges likely to go unnoticed were it not for his detailed explication: The novel trips between a host of languages and dialects (11), yet Rayfield’s careful decisions result in a seamless cosmopolitanism that manages to convey the cultural diversity of Kvachi’s world without confusing the reader. Instead we are able to leap across borders as effortlessly as the hero, in his whirlwind travels from small-town Georgia, to imperial Russia, across Europe and back through Central Asia.

Perhaps more important even than this inspired navigation of the many complexities posed by the original text is Rayfield’s painstaking research, which managed to restore much of what has been lost over the decades to Soviet censorship while also maintaining changes discovered to be the author’s own. Born Mikheil Adamishvili in 1880 to a Georgian family of farmers, Javakhishvili would, like his protagonist, be swept into the chaotic currents of history (though from a much more politically motivated position), confronting exile, crushing censorship and, ultimately, amid the Great Terror of 1937, the firing squad. Kvachi Kvachantiradze, Rayfield points out, began as a series of sketches, which Javakhishvili then gathered together and published as a novel in 1925, re-releasing it in 1934 following the censor’s heavy edits. It was this highly excised edition which finally appeared in a lax Russian translation in 1999. Rayfield believes his English translation to be the most complete and accurate version available, and it appears courtesy of Dalkey Archive as the latest title in their Georgian Literature Series (9-11).

Kvachi’s scope is both epic and intimate, whirling its hero from the wonders of fin-de-siècle Europe to the horrors of World War I and subsequent Soviet invasion of Georgia. As is typical for a picaresque protagonist, Kvachi has few, if any, allegiances, and is driven only by his own insatiable desires for fame, fortune and women. Yet it is his fancy footwork in dancing between opposing sides which allows him to successfully indulge his self-interest, often escaping even the direst, life-threatening circumstances in ways so creative (and perhaps implausible) as to keep the reader cheering him on, if only to see how he manages to extricate himself from the latest entanglement. Very early in the novel, Kvachi’s schemes reach a startling level of perversion, throwing into stark relief the senseless violence of the twentieth century, that true mark of human cruelty writ large across the map of Europe. Real-life historical personages, such as Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas, make appearances as mere characters, often comically weak and at the mercy of Kvachi’s silver tongue. Nevertheless, even Kvachi proves no match for the inexorable march of history, the power of which is conveyed through a narrative pace which only seems to accelerate as the novel progresses. Thus the book sows troubling questions about the role of individual human actions amid the seemingly distant sociopolitical forces at work within a given lifetime, and can even be read as a warning against the unprecedented strength of this gathering storm called modernity.

Running through Kvachi’s many appearances in the major historical events of his day is the thematic thread of personal legacy. What is biography but an avenue toward immortality for a select few, the so-called “great men?” Yet the novel humorously suggests that history left Kvachi out, and both the protagonist and the narrator attempt to rectify this oversight: Kvachi with his prophecies and sober appeals to his friends to keep his story alive, should he not pull through his latest scrape, and the narrator with digressions critiquing the conventional historical narrative in which Kvachi’s name and deeds do not appear.

Of course it is only human to want to be remembered, and in that respect, the novel strikes a universal chord. Nevertheless, one senses other gradations of significance shading such a theme, tints which are reflected in the character of Kvachi himself, who displays a curious ambivalence about his identity throughout the novel. The feat of passing on one’s story to posterity implies the negotiation of a single story to transmit, a process which is decidedly more complicated for a member of an oppressed minority. Where the hero starts out ready to shake the dust of small-town Georgia from his feet, then bristles at his friends’ desire to leave glamorous Paris and go home, he eventually returns to Georgia in a flood of emotion and fervent patriotism, and ultimately finds himself in exile in Turkey, wondering at his continued dissatisfaction. Similarly, the novel itself is conflicted in its portrayal of Georgian culture, sometimes depicting its characters as so crude and obstreperous as to verge on the stereotypical, other times singing the tiny nation’s praises, its simultaneous vulnerability and strength in the face of buffeting political forces. Perhaps, in a fittingly unresolved ending, when the narrator commiserates with Kvachi’s unnamable longing, it is Javakhishvili himself who is saying, “I understand…” (544).

Kvachi may be an unlikely hero, but his story – devilishly provocative, heartfelt and ironic – is the story both of his nation and his century.

Read an excerpt from Kvachi at Asymptote Journal’s blog

Works Cited

Javakhishvili, Mikheil. Kvachi. Tr Donald Rayfield. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.

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