Text: Magdalena Gigova
The ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Endowment Fund officially obtained, from the Penguin Publishing Group, the copyright of ‘Dobry’, the novel for children and adolescents, unknown in Bulgaria. It was a total bestseller in the US, breaking sales records in 1934. Between its publication and 1966, the book was reprinted 11 times and continues to be republished as a classic to this day.
‘The novel has already been translated into Bulgarian by the poetess Maria Doneva and will go to the printer’s any moment now,’ said the Fund’s Executive Director, Slava Ivanova. ‘I am truly very happy that, after so many decades, the honour and joy fell to NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ to make this book known to young readers not only in Bulgaria but also abroad. When the novel ‘Dobry’ is published, we will send it to Bulgarian schools abroad. Yes, young people can read it in English in the original, but, by publishing the book in their mother tongue, they will come in contact with the traditional (and somewhat forgotten) way of life, and through it with Bulgarianness, with the Bulgarian spirit.
‘Many people born in the countryside today spread the glory of our native land around the world, through a brush, a voice or the word, and are stars on the international stage—an example to all of us,’ concluded Slava Ivanova.
In 2013, pupils from Pernik’s English Language Secondary School undertook to translate the novel ‘Dobry’ into Bulgarian with the assistance of the local museum, but today, for the first time, it will officially reach the readers.
How did the story of a Bulgarian peasant boy at the beginning of the 20th century become the favourite reading of American kids and adolescents? With luck, and with its treatment of eternal virtues. Artist and sculptor Atanas Katchamakoff was not only the creator of the illustrations, but also the main character in the tale.
He was born in 1898 in Lyaskovets. From an early age, the youngster demonstrated a talent for drawing and, after graduating from the Faculty of Law at Sofia University, he studied at the Academy of Arts in Sofia, where he was admitted to Prof. Ivan Lazarov’s sculpture class. In 1924, he departed for Paris and then to the US. In 1931, Katchamakoff won first prize in the great exhibition in New York for his marble sculpture, ‘Indian Woman and Child’.
He soon settled in Hollywood and began working for the super-productions ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘The King of Kings’, ‘Helen of Troy’, and ‘Noah’s Ark’.
Over 80 years ago, the children’s book ‘Dobry’ came to life spontaneously. In the evenings, friends used to gather at the sculptor’s house, each having to share their own story. When the host began to unravel memories of his childhood and youth, writer and journalist Monica Shannon insisted on taking notes. The Canadian-born author turned the stories into a book, which was published in New York in November 1934.
In June of the following year, the second edition of ‘Dobry’ won the Medal awarded in the name of John Newbery (1713–1767) for ‘the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children in 1934’. A jury chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president at the time, awarded him the prize.
At the time, in a letter to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the Bulgarian consul in the USA, Konstantin Popatanasov, announced the success of the book, but no one translated it into Bulgarian. Until now. The hope lies with NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ to realise his dream today.
The plot is straightforward, and precisely because of that, enthralling. Dobry lives in a small village with his widowed mother and his grandfather. They work in the fields and the boy helps them. He spends his rare moments of rest with his best friend, Neda, the daughter of the local shoemaker.
Although labouring selflessly, Dobry feels that field work is not for him. He is in love with the fine arts, revealing his enormous talent from an early age. In order to buy art supplies, he takes on the job of a cow herder, and continues to create. His mother (she is called Roda in the novel) is worried that he shows no attraction to agricultural work. However, his grandfather manages to convince her that a gift like Dobry’s should not be wasted. When the boy creates a captivating snow sculpture at Christmas and the whole village admires him, Roda realises her youngster’s talent.
On New Year’s Eve, she gives him all her savings to continue his studies. Dobry leaves, promising however to return to his childhood friend Neda. Gradually, their friendship turns into a romantic love and the artist swears that he will marry her after graduation.
American sources point to Atanas Katchamakoff as the creator of the illustrations in the book, but few mention that he was in fact the ‘lyrical hero’.
In the early 1980s, the artist returned to Bulgaria and held a large exhibition at the National Art Gallery. His works (30 drawings and 2 sculptures, donated by the artist) are kept at NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’.
They often leave the repository in order to tell stories of the way of life in the Bulgarian village of the early 20th century in thematic exhibitions on Atanas Katchamakoff.
The exhibition ‘Bread’, with drawings and texts by the artist runs until April in the representative salons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in partnership with the State Cultural Institute.