A muse for the mis­un­der­stood

It’s easy to see why many fa­mous artists have said that Paris was the first place where they en­joyed be­ing hu­man ON THE BUT­TON Tell your drivel to the birds!

Sunday Times - - Obituaries -

‘NO one saw the killer. At least, no one has come for­ward thus far to give a de­scrip­tion of the killer. The job was done swiftly and pro­fes­sion­ally.

“Dul­cie Septem­ber, 52, was about to turn the key to her of­fice on the fourth floor of a run­down build­ing in 28 rue des Pe­tites-Ecuries in Paris on March 29 1988 when an as­sas­sin stepped up be­hind her.

“Per­haps she turned at the last minute, at the sound of the in­truder’s feet. Maybe she didn’t. All we know now, the ac­count that’s been com­mit­ted to his­tor­i­cal records, is that the in­truder then squeezed off six shots from a .22 pis­tol equipped with a si­lencer. Then he dis­ap­peared.

“Sev­eral min­utes later, a worker from a neigh­bour­ing of­fice found her ly­ing in a pool of blood. There were no wit­nesses and no­body heard the gun­shots that killed the ANC rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Paris.

“From Pre­to­ria the de­nials came thick and fast. The for­eign min­is­ter, Roelof ‘Pik’ Botha, re­sponded: ‘The South African gov­ern­ment can­not be held re­spon­si­ble for this deed.’ He sug­gested, without of­fer­ing any proof, that ‘se­ri­ous ar­gu­ments’ among an­ti­a­partheid or­gan­i­sa­tions may have led to Septem­ber’s killing.

“In­deed, sup­port­ers of the ANC were at the time caught up in deadly bat­tles with other po­lit­i­cal groups, in­clud­ing Azapo and Inkatha. Fac­tional dis­putes also ex­isted in­side the ANC. But French po­lice dis­closed no ev­i­dence link­ing any group, of what­ever po­lit­i­cal stripe, to Septem­ber’s mur­der.”

That is how Time mag­a­zine jour­nal­ist William R Do­erner wrote about Septem­ber’s mur­der at the time.

To­day, we know that the mur­der was fi­nally blamed on the apartheid gov­ern­ment’s Civil Co-op­er­a­tion Bureau of dirty tricks.

It’s one of those tales that, to this day, still fas­ci­nates many, es­pe­cially here in France. There are a hand­ful of mon­u­ments in her hon­our, in­clud­ing a high school named af­ter her in Ar­cueil, on the out­skirts of Paris, and a street, Place Dul­cie Septem­ber, in Paris’s 10th district.

There is also a Place Dul­cie Septem­ber in Nantes in which the fa­mous École Ré­gionale des Beaux-Arts de Nantes is sit­u­ated, and a pri­mary school in Évry-sur-Seine that bears her name.

Apart from Ger­ard Sekoto, the South African artist who spent more than 30 years in Paris, Septem­ber is the one South African-French link that many still re­mem­ber.

Af­ter five weeks holed up in the small French town of Sain­tNazaire, I ven­tured to Paris last week.

It’s an hour’s trip by air­craft or three hours on their high­speed train, the TGV. I chose the train for the sheer beauty of the coun­try­side, which I hoped to see on the way.

And I did see parts of the haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful land­scapes in Angers and some other small towns, but much was still cov­ered in snow.

Paris is a world away from Saint-Nazaire. In Saint-Nazaire, I had to pref­ace any talk with a stranger with the words: “ Mon français n’est pas bon mais je peux es­sayer de par­ler avec vous (My French is not good but I can try to speak to you).

In Paris I did not have to say this, be­cause many peo­ple I en­coun­tered spoke English.

I could un­der­stand now, more than on my pre­vi­ous visit to this city, why one of my favourite au­thors, Amer­i­can crime nov­el­ist Ch­ester Himes, stayed in Paris for more than 20 years and never learned French. He didn’t have to.

Paris lives up to the cliché of a cul­tural Mecca of Europe. Well, I did the usual: the Eif­fel Tower, some mu­se­ums . . . but there was just so lit­tle time.

As Ernest Hem­ing­way wrote in A Move­able Feast: “There is never any end­ing to Paris and the mem­ory of each per­son who has lived in it dif­fers from that of any other.”

In­deed, the Paris I went to was not that which of­fered refuge from Amer­i­can racism to such artists as Richard Wright, Miles Davis and Nina Si­mone — all of whom have var­i­ously said that the first time they en­joyed be­ing hu­man was dur­ing their stay in Paris.

But you can’t make such lofty judg­ments and pro­nounce­ments based on a week’s stay, so I will take their word for it.

But even though they are all gone now, th­ese artists have left their mark on Paris, at least in the Saint Ger­main-des-Prés area and in the Latin Quar­ter.

The city guide book makes men­tion of th­ese peo­ple and how Paris be­came a muse to them.

Some restau­rants have pic­tures of some of th­ese artists from old. They use the names of th­ese artists to mar­ket them­selves: Sartre used to dine here; Miles Davis used to hang out here; Bud Pow­ell was here et cetera.

Even the gov­ern­ment ac­knowl­edges the im­pact that France might have had on th­ese artists’ lives, in­clud­ing the likes of Sa­muel Beck­ett and William Faulkner.

On its web­site, the depart­ment of for­eign af­fairs points out: “Count­less writ­ers, painters, mu­si­cians and dancers fol­lowed.

“For for­eign artists, France is, in­deed, not so much a coun­try as more an idea of a coun­try, an idea of hap­pi­ness and of good liv­ing . . . For for­eign artists of­ten found our coun­try a land of refuge for their mis­un­der­stood ge­nius.

“It is to France, in short, that peo­ple come to make them­selves un­der­stood — Ir­ish writer James Joyce man­aged to get Ulysses pub­lished, thanks to Adri­enne Mon­nier and Sylvia Beach, who had a pub­lish­ing house in rue de l’Odéon, Paris.

“And the Amer­i­can of Rus­sian ori­gin, Vladimir Nabokov, launched his sub­ver­sive Lolita with the as­sis­tance of Mau­rice Giro­dias, his coura­geous French pub­lisher.

“And what about the for­eign film direc­tors who only achieved re­spect through France’s en­thu­si­asm for the cin­ema?

“A great many came to stay in Paris at the be­hest of the Ciné­math­èque Française, and saw their work praised and ap­plauded at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. Ul­ti­mately, they were only able to work through the ef­forts of our pro­duc­ers, and (Léon) Gau­mont above all.

“This was true for Ital­ian film­mak­ers Roberto Ros­sellini and Fed­erico Fellini, as it was for Ger­man film­maker Wim Wen­ders, Greek film­maker Costa-Gavras and Ira­nian film­maker Ab­bas Kiarostami.”

Gush­ing stuff, in­deed, but you get the idea: Paris was, and still is, the cul­tural melt­ing pot of Europe.

That’s why, when I left Le Pub af­ter be­ing wined and dined there in the ex­quis­ite com­pany of celebri­ties that I didn’t even know — I only saw a horde of press pho­tog­ra­phers milling at the en­trance, light­ning the night away with their flashes with ir­ri­tat­ing reg­u­lar­ity — that I made it a point to leave my busi­ness card with the wait­ress.

Maybe some day my name will be men­tioned in the same breath as that of Miles Davis — the Zulu boy was here, af­ter all, and sat where Miles used to


TOKYO Sexwale and the small mat­ter of a lin­guis­tic slip doesn’t want to go away.

Fol­low­ing my col­umn of last week on Sexwale’s ex­pla­na­tion that he had not in­tended to ac­cuse COPE of witch­craft in its re­cruit­ment of older women, COPE spokesman Sipho Ng­wema has come out fir­ing. I share with you an edited ver­sion:

“Ei­ther Mr Sexwale thinks we are all fools or he is used to fool­ing some peo­ple all the time. This time, Sexwale, tell your trans­la­tion drivel to the birds!

“Why did you con­ve­niently for­get to men­tion that the orig­i­nal ar­ti­cle was writ­ten by an African, Caiphus Kgosana? He was there and he heard you loud and clear. His trans­la­tion is ac­cu­rate.

“Is it sheer co­in­ci­dence that you sin­gled out old women from all the peo­ple that COPE re­cruits? Per­haps you should have also ex­plained why you thought that your lan­guage would res­onate with the mainly ru­ral crowd of the East­ern Cape. Our moth­ers lose their magic touch as they grow old; they have wrin­kled faces, they shrink, they be­come ill; they be­come lonely — they get burnt alive with their fam­i­lies, bru­tally mur­dered for grow­ing old. You know this.

“Mr Sexwale, there’s no white per­son to blame — you are on your own.

“I once read some­thing along th­ese lines: ‘Be the first to apol­o­gise when your wrong thoughts, talk or action have neg­a­tively im­pacted on oth­ers. To do this takes great hu­mil­ity. De­fen­sive­ness, ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion, blame or ex­cuses are a sign that hu­mil­ity is miss­ing in your char­ac­ter and that ego­cen­tric­ity and self­ish­ness are hav­ing their way with you.’

“You and your party have be­come very ar­ro­gant. You take South Africans for granted. Your state­ment is sex­ist, danger­ous and in­sult­ing to women and their chil­dren. Just do the hon­ourable thing — you have it in you.

“You might be fool­ish but you are cer­tainly not a fool.”

Fe­bru­ary 15 2009

Pic­ture: AP

SPAN­NING CUL­TURES: The Eif­fel Tower in Paris

FONDLY RE­MEM­BERED: The late Dul­cie Septem­ber

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