Тhe character of Sly Peter flawlessly transitioned into the new socialist system. Meanwhile, Stalin died and a partial “thaw” occurred. Sly Peter, a folk hero and a wise guy who ridiculed priests and wealthy merchants – a man who outwitted life – was once again in demand as a bearer of Bulgarian identity. In 1954, the editorial office of Radio Sofia invited Sava Popov to submit several stories about Sly Peter to be read by actors in a program for children. He made a selection and edited some twenty anecdotes. He later compiled a collection of 61 stories about Sly Peter, and in 1956, he offered them to the Bulgarian Writer Publishing House. The editor of the book was the writer Angel Karaliychev.
Sava Popov’s recollections of the creation of Sly Peter
Early one morning in the fall of 1956, Karaliychev called me to the publishing house and, telling me that he had endorsed the book for printing, asked me which artist I had in mind to illustrate Sly Peter, and if I didn’t have one, the publishing house would offer me one of its collaborating artists. “Beshkov!” I answered assuredly. Karaliychev knew about my close friendship with Beshkov, but he smiled skeptically, looking down at his desk. “Beshkov, Beshkov…” he repeated, and after a long pause, he looked up at me: “And if he doesn’t agree, call the production department in time to look for another artist…”
At that time, Beshkov was seriously ill. He wasn’t going to the Academy, he didn’t go out anywhere except on rare occasions. I visited him often. He knew about the book. He had read the manuscript, but never mentioned its illustration. That same day, after my meeting with Karaliychev, I went to Beshkov after lunch. I felt guilty and terribly embarrassed to tell him how I had engaged him in this work without getting his consent beforehand. We were alone, and in the course of our conversation I used a longer pause to say to him:
Iliya, I’m feeling very guilty in front of you. This morning I was at Karaliychev’s and I somehow gave you a job to illustrate Sly Peter… Beshkov stared at me with his mouth half open. “You didn’t have anything else to do, and you wrote Sly Peter,” he said after a bit and stopped talking. I turned to face the large French window. I was ashamed to look him in the eye, and I decided, after all, that this was the most direct and delicate refusal. But after a certain pause I heard him articulating, in a tone of annoyance: “Em-plo-y-er!” “Now he’s going to kill me,” I thought to myself and was afraid of incurring his wrath. We were both silent. After a while I lit a cigarette. “Give me a light,” he said and, taking a couple of drags from the cigarette, continued in a slightly calmer tone: “Can’t you see that I’m sick? I’m not doing anything. At least you spared me…”
In the last year of his life, Iliya Beshkov worked on Sava Popov’s book. He returned to the memories of his native village of Dolni Dabnik, and that’s where the prototype characters for Sly Peter were. Only a few of Iliya Beshkov’s drawings for the book refer specifically to Sava Popov’s stories. The artist captured, with laconic lines and daubs, the characters and the communication of the protagonists – children and old men, peasant men and women, dogs, cats, donkeys, elephants, priests and judges. The virtuoso drawings, reminiscent of Eastern calligraphy, were made with a matchstick dipped in ink in one go.
“Beshkov and Sly Peter” – Sava Popov’s Afterword
In spite of his illness, Iliya Beshkov set to work illustrating my book of stories about Sly Peter. He worked on it almost the entire last year of his life.
During my repeated visits, we also talked about Sly Peter. Then Beshkov would become lively. He returned in his memories to events, people, animals and places around his native village of Dolni Dabnik. In that way he created a world in which he also saw Sly Peter.
“It’s not necessary to recreate the exact meaning of the words with the drawing!” he would say.
In the beginning, Beshkov made several drawings with a nibbed pen. But he wasn’t satisfied. And his pen wasn’t good – rusted, abandoned.
“I’m old already and my instrument is worn out. I can’t do what I want to with it!…” he complained to me, then put half a cigarette in his cigarette holder and start smoking. Then he pinched of the end of a matchstick with his fingernail, dipped it in ink, and… Sly Peter’s donkey came to life on the white page.
That evening Beshkov made a lot of donkeys with the matchstick and a few more virtuosic drawings. He would draw and sometimes talk, sometimes hum:
“The donkey with the match, lest he get a bear scratch!”
The power of these celebrated illustrations is in their amazing simplicity and the laconism of the drawing.
Beshkov drew old women, old men, dogs, weddings, christenings, donkeys, and priests with enthusiasm, and he joked with his characters. He liked the drawings with the old men and women the best. At one point he started drawing coffins and funerals. He made a whole series of all kinds of drawings with coffins: professional women mourners sitting around the coffins, covering their kerchiefed faces with their palms; lanterns and crosses, loaded onto carts; the donkeys…
“Enough with those coffins!” I told him and forced a laugh.
“A coffin for every man!” he answered seriously. “You don’t know!”
Sly Peter will bury me…
He would draw Sly Peter riding a coffin-loaded donkey.
“Ye-e-es!” Beshkov would smile sadly. “That’s him. He’s coming with my coffin. Good, smiling, with a flower… My salvation will also come with him…”
“Nonsense!” I would say, trying to divert him from these intrusive thoughts.
“You can’t argue about nonsense or with nonsense, but death is real!…”
It has happened that I would stay with Beshkov for around ten hours. He kept a stricter diet than the doctors required. Sia, his wife, was always making him different dietetic foods that he wouldn’t touch. He would just eat a little boiled pumpkin from time to time. One afternoon the hostess wasn’t home. We got hungry. Beshkov sensed this and sent me to the kitchen to find something to eat.
I brought a piece of bread and salt. We dipped the bread in the salt and ate. It was delicious. He watched me and was happy.
“Eat, eat! Enjoy yourself…”
Beshkov almost never ate bread. He was on a sodium-free diet.
“Chew a crust!” I suggested to him.
“I have no teeth.”
“Why don’t you make yourself some?”
“Ha!… I’m not a dog that needs teeth. And I don’t even have anyone to bite…”
“Then take the middle with a little salt!”
“Eat, eat! Have some salt! I’m going to die saltless…”
Iliya Beshkov died in January, 1958. The book came out in May.
The book Sly Peter was published in 1958. The design was done by Mana Parpulova, a student of Iliya Beshkov’s. The edition was hardcover, with added colourful ornaments. In the archive we find a “Drawing Pad” with the preparatory pencil drawings for them. The artist made various combinations of highly stylized images – flowers, a sun, earth, sky, water, clouds. These decorative elements were conceived as an arbitrary spatial environment for Beshkov’s minimalist calligraphic drawings, and although they are woven into them, they maintain a distance. They build a parallel level that strongly exhibits the blackness of the ink.
Sly Peter was Sava Popov’s most successful book. It collected all his experience in the genre of “authorial retelling” from an anonymous, “folkloric” source, classic examples of which are the Brothers Grimm, and in Bulgarian literature – Nikolay Raynov and Svetoslav Minkov. Sava Popov’s qualities as a writer are manifested both in the ease with which he leads the action, and in the skilful handling of the Bulgarian language in its richness. These anecdotes take place in an indeterminate time – the lifestyle is somewhere “before” the 20th century, but at the same time, the narrative is sufficiently colourful, readable, and interesting for readers several generations later. In 1959, the publication received an award at the Leipzig Book Fair, which at that time was among the most prestigious exhibitions in the socialist camp. The three editions of Sly Peter up to 1974 had a total circulation of over 100,000.