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Alex Danchev

Biography

Alex Danchev is the author of a number of internationally acclaimed biographies, including Georges Braque (Penguin, 2007; Hazan, 2013) and Paul Cézanne (Pantheon, 2012; Profile, 2013). His other recent books include a collection of essays, On Art and War and Terror (Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 100 Artists' Manifestos (Penguin, 2011), and The Letters of Paul Cézanne (Thames & Hudson, 2013). He is currently working on a biography of René Magritte. From January 2014, he's Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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Authors' text

My Belgium

I am studying a copy of a birth certificate, willing it to spill its secrets. I have discovered it only recently. It reads as follows:

L'an mil neuf cent vingt, le vingt trois juillet à onze heures du matin, Nous, Valère Hénault, Echevin, Officier de l'État Civil de la Ville de Liège, avons dressé sur la declaration à défaut du père, de Mariette Euben, âgée de vingt quatre ans, domiciliée à Liège, sage-femme ayant assisté à l'accouchement, l'acte de naissance d'un enfant du sexe masculin qui Nous a été présenté et auquel il a été donné les prenoms de Alphonse Yordan Sava Julien Marie Joseph, né à Liège, le vingt et un juillet à huit heures du soir, fils de Sava Yordonoff Dantcheff, né à Sliven, Bulgarie, âgé de trente ans, étudiant, et de Alice Dory, née à Liège, âgée de vingt quatre ans, sans profession, conjoints, domiliciés à Liège, rue Mississippi 75.

Acte dressé en présence de Julien Belhomme, âgé de trente et un ans, employé, et de Alphonse Dory, âgé de cinquante trois ans, professeur à l'École Moyenne, domiliciés à Liège.

That infant with the epic name, Alphonse Yordan Sava Julien Marie Joseph Dantcheff, was my father.

I would have said that we were close. Yet I did not know his name - his full name - or his birthplace. Sometimes I think I did not know who he was, after all, or how he thought of himself, when it came to the nice question of nationality or identity. Nominally, Alphonse Yordan Sava Julien Marie Joseph Dantcheff seems to tell of a cosmopolitan heritage, if not a dynastic muddle. Belonging is a tricky concept. It involves both being and longing. Where did he belong?

I knew or thought I knew the bare outline of his early life: he grew up in Samokov, Bulgaria, where his father (a student? at thirty?) managed a textile mill; he had an idyllic childhood, which came to an abrupt and tragic end when his mother died of cholera in 1929 when he was eight; he was sent to the American College of Sofia, where he excelled, winning a scholarship to continue his studies in England, at the London School of Mines; he left Bulgaria in the nick of time, in 1939. The scholarship was a lifeline, a means of escape. He wanted it desperately; but the sense of severance remained. He never saw his father again.

He recorded his nationality as Belgian/Bulgarian, but in England he appeared more Bulgarian than Belgian, if only because of the surname, now Slavified as Danchev. As if to ratify the provenance, he was recruited by the Bulgarian Service of the BBC during the war. Here too he excelled. At the end of the war he was invited to stay on (and, by his own account, solicited by the intelligence services). These overtures he rejected, in favour of completing his degree in mining engineering. Shortly afterwards, however, there was a further mutation. A list of naturalized British citizens in The London Gazette of 16 January 1948 includes Danchev, Alfons Sava, Bulgaria, Mining Student, 169 Town Street, Armley, Leeds. The deed was done on 20 December 1947.

‘Alf' Danchev was now British. Evidently he could pass. And yet he remained irremediably foreign: if not exactly an enemy alien, then a friendly one. He relished the humour in How to be an Alien (1946) by George Mikes; he understood it from the inside. (‘The English have no soul; they have the understatement instead.') His English was too good. He spoke BBC English, as they used to say. (Did he speak BBC Bulgarian, I wonder?) The cut of his jib was subtly different - the moustache, perhaps. In Yorkshire, he had strange tastes. He liked salami, and fruit with meat (prunes with lamb), and Turkish Delight; he did not drink beer, but he knew that 1959 and 1961 were good years for Beaujolais.

He never returned to Bulgaria. The glacial Cold War made it virtually impossible. Alfons Sava Danchev had burned his boats. In Stalinist Bulgaria the American College of Sofia was a proscribed institution; its alumnae, once the presumptive elite, were now pariahs, eking out a precarious existence as translators or plumbers. On top of this, broadcasting for the BBC meant that his name was known to the authorities. Corresponding with him was dangerous; consorting with him was out of the question. Ideologically, Eastern Europe was a no-go zone. His heart beat on the left, as Vaclav Havel once said. In Britain, he voted Labour all his life. Communism was not his tasse de thé. He died in 1988, the year before the wall came down.

He did return to Belgium - as soon as he could, in 1946. His mother had a sister, Lisette, who lived with her husband Maurice in Liège. A few tiny photographs seem to suggest that my father went to visit them. There the evidence gives out. I do not know their name or their address. I do not know if they had children of their own, though a boy called Roger appears in the photographs. My long-lost grandmother, my father's beloved mother, Alice Dory, remains a mystery to me. Was Alphonse Dory, the school teacher who signed his name with a flourish on the birth certificate, her father? Is there a Dory still in Liège - my Dory - my Belgium?

‘Always keep a reserve stock of maladaptation,' said Henri Michaux, a native of Namur. Perhaps my father had a little of that. He left me one unheralded gift. Naturally enough, given his origins, he also spoke French, though I hardly ever heard him use it. I learned the language at school; I have no memory of speaking it with him. Years later, strange to relate, on a good day, the French themselves will take me for ... not French, of course, but ... Belgian.

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