For a long time being a Georgian didn’t amount to much for me. It just meant having an impossibly difficult, Icelandic-volcano-like surname CHKHARTISHVILI. Only Georgians and eagles can pronounce the first sound correctly. In French it’s spelled Tchkhartichvili. In German it looks even scarier. Once I left my documents at an airport check-in desk which resulted in an embarrassing experience at the passport control – all because the Lufthansa girl, trying to call me back, started with “Herr Tschkh…” and then had a coughing fit.
On the other hand, when I was at school it was a blessing because teachers were reluctant to call me out.
I am a third-generation Muscovite, which is probably similar to being a third-generation Londoner – you don’t feel very ethnic growing up in that huge borsch-cauldron of a city. You are just a Muscovite, and that’s it. My pen-name, under which I am known to the general public, sounds very Russian and is easy to pronounce for bookshop personnel.
It was the great leader of the Great Russia who reminded me and everybody else who I really was. During the surge of anti-Putin protests (of which I was an eager participant) the president said, with fatherly sadness, that he, like everybody else, loved my books, but that my queer political behaviour was caused by my Georgian origin – meaning that my loyalty lay with another country, then hostile to Russia. After that, quite a number of individuals wrote to me (and they still do) demanding that I kiss off to where I belong. Not bad advice, by the way, if you take it in a philosophical sense.
But that set me thinking. Since my name ends with –shvili, I really am of Georgian origin. Isn’t it time to learn at least something about my forefathers? I began making inquiries about Chkhartishvilis of the past, and quite soon came across Prince Luca.
Luca Chkhartishvili was a leader of Georgian “cossacks” in Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” Show. In fact, there were several Chkhartishvilis in the circus, all coming from my father’s native village, Lanchkhuti, undoubtedly his and my relatives. During the show Buffalo Bill would parade his cowboys and Indians first, then a more exotic spectacle would follow: bearded saddle-dancers in astrakhan hats with glistening sabres and daggers – they were my forefathers.
Luca was no prince, of course. He was a half-literate peasant, but when on horseback he became a real prince, maybe even a king. He could gallop standing on his head. He was recklessly brave, he had several near-fatal accidents, almost breaking his neck. Together with a whole bunch of other –shvilis he toured the United States and Europe, once even performing for Queen Victoria.
The show held for years, till the First World War broke out. Then some of the “Cossacks” chose to become Americans – and succeeded. Others, including all Chkhartishvilis, showed less wit by coming back to their troubled country where they disappeared without trace. The year of Prince Luca’s demise is unknown. In the Soviet Union anyone with a history of foreign travel was held in suspicion and inevitably “isolated from the society”. My father, born in 1919, as a kid heard only vague whispers about some “American Cossacks”. He was sure that it was absurd family folklore. Who needed such relatives anyway? My father was an orphan, and when I asked him about my grandfather, he’d say: “He returned from the war and died soon after, that’s all I know.” I think now: what if my grandfather was one of the Wild West Georgian riders? It is a comforting thought.
I feel a certain kinship with the fake prince and his gang – not ethnic, but professional. Isn’t it what I, an author of detective fiction, basically do for a living too? Dancing in the saddle, galloping upside-down, ever trying to think of new tricks so that the public doesn’t stop coming? It must be in the genes.
Boris Akunin will be in conversation with Boyd Tonkin, chair of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, on Monday 11 April at 6:45pm, at Asia House (63 New Cavendish Street, London W1G 7LP) to launch Where Europe Meets Asia: Georgia25, a week of talks and films marking 25 years since the Restoration of Georgia’s Independence.
Tickets £10 + concessions: 0207 307 5454