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!
‘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.”
SPANNING CULTURES: The Eiffel Tower in Paris
FONDLY REMEMBERED: The late Dulcie September