Text: Magdalena Gigova
Photo: Bojidar Markov, Agency PhotoGroup.bg
The presentation of the novel ‘Dobry’ at the Peroto Literature Club began with a performance by the adorable 7-year-old violinist, Katerina Mihaylova.
And since the literary work, published thanks to the efforts of the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Endowment Fund, was more popular in the USA than in our country, those present watched a short video about the journey of the book and its inspirer and illustrator Atanas Katchamakoff.
The book for children and adolescents, published for the first time in Bulgarian, was written by the Canadian-born journalist and author, Monica Shannon, based on the recollections of Bulgarian artist Atanas Katchamakoff, who also illustrated it. It was first published 87 years ago, in 1934, in the USA by the Viking Press. The book tells the fascinating and insightful story of a talented Bulgarian boy born and raised in a small village in the Balkan Mountains, who dreamed of becoming an artist. Based on Katchamakoff’s childhood memories, ‘Dobry’ depicts the patriarchal way of life and customs in Bulgaria at the beginning of the twentieth century through the prism of healthy family ties, unadulterated human warmth and love, and the urge for beauty. In 1935, the novel was awarded the John Newbury Gold Medal, the first and most prestigious children’s literature award, set up by the American Library Association. President Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, was a member of the jury. ‘Dobry’ has been republished many times, most recently in 1993 by Puffin Books.
The fate of the creator of the book illustrations and the prototype of the main character, Atanas Katchamakoff, is also interesting. Born in 1898 in Lyaskovets, he studied sculpture at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia, under Prof. Ivan Lazarov. In 1924, together with his wife Alexandra Katchamakoff, a ceramic artist, he left for the USA. They settled in New York, where Katchamakoff participated in several major exhibitions and won awards: his bronze statue of President Lincoln is in the collection of the Lincoln Financial Foundation. In the 1930s, the family moved to Los Angeles and Katchamakoff began working as a sculptor for major film productions (Paramount’s ‘Song of Songs’, 1933, starring Marlene Dietrich, and ‘Ben-Hur’). His acquaintance with Monica Shannon dates from that time.
The Katchamakoff artistic family founded their own art school in Palm Springs. In the 1980s, the sculptor bequeathed his estate to La Sierra University in Los Angeles and to California State University at Northridge. Even today, La Sierra University awards a scholarship in the name of Alexandra and Atanas Katchamakoff to ‘students who perform artistically on a realistic basis’.
In 1983, the sculptor donated a large collection of his artworks to the Bulgarian state. Thus, a series of 30 colour drawings on the theme of ‘Our Daily Bread’ became the property of NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’.
Among those moved by the unusual destiny of the Bulgarian artist and the novel ‘Dobry’ were Vice President Iliana Yotova, U.S. Ambassador HE Herro Mustafa, Deputy Minister of Culture Vessela Kondakova, Prof. Valeri Stefanov, Prof. Amelia Licheva, writers, artists, actors…
Ms Yotova congratulated the Fund’s team for the first publication of the novel in Bulgarian, because without it the book would have continued to slide towards obscurity. She admired the fact that they even managed to ferret out the 1934 first edition of ‘Dobry’, and discovered Kapka Kaneva, the artist who created a cover in the tradition of ‘the good children’s books’.
The Vice President said she hoped to meet the translator of the book someday to ask if in English it sounded so picturesque, authentic and typically Bulgarian, not suspecting that Maria Doneva was in front of her, among the guests. Following the celebration, she accepted the congratulations and answered all her questions.
Iliana Yotova also shared details of the fruitful cooperation with the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Endowment Fund and revealed the joint idea of finding Bulgarian authors who, although living for many years in all corners of the world, still write in their native language. She quoted Ivo Ivanov from Kansas City: ‘At the time, when I was a journalist in Sofia, I used to really laugh at those nationalists who wanted Bulgaria to border three seas. Well, today, the Bulgarians live across four oceans, because there is a virtual spiritual Bulgaria.’ Katchamakoff himself claimed in his recollections that spiritual Bulgaria could be commensurable to the entire United States. ‘I say it can be commensurable to the whole world,’ the Vice President added.
U.S. Ambassador Herro Mustafa began her speech by sharing that her daughters are three and five years old and, every morning when they are taken to school, she sits with them in the back seat and reads a book to them. She made the hearts of those present pound excitedly by reading out two excellently selected quotes from the novel ‘Dobry’, having informed the attendees in advance on which page they could find the Bulgarian translation of the text. ‘When we eat good bread, we are eating months of sunlight, weeks of rain and snow from the sky, richness out of the earth. And it all becomes part of us.’
NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ Executive Director, Slava Ivanova, enthusiastically emphasised the fact that the stories in the book and Atanas Katchamakoff are worthy of a screenplay. She said that, in unison with the Fund’s traditions for charitableness, the novel ‘Dobry’ is a gift to all Bulgarian children in Bulgaria and around the world. The book will be distributed gratuitously. ‘It possesses so much kindness, so much heart, so much pure emotion, values. I want us to teach our children all this. They deserve to touch the real, valuable markers in our lives,’ Slava Ivanova concluded with inspiration and thanked everyone who had supported the novel ‘Dobry’ on its way to the readers.