Where it’s gone, no one nose
Cape Town - Could a short story by a 19th century Russian novelist have inspired the vandalism of a Cecil John Rhodes statue, its bronze nose severed with an angle grinder last week?
A succession of ostensible clues by the self-proclaimed nose-cutters reference a literary source for the act: Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 short story The Nose.
The removal of the nose belonging to the large bronze bust of the former prime minister of the Cape Colony happened between late Thursday and early Friday last week at Rhodes Memorial on the slopes of Devil’s Peak.
Anti-Rhodes graffiti had been scrawled on the bust’s pedestal and the memorial’s granite walls.
The nose remains at large.
Police spokeswoman Constable Noloyiso Rwexana said on Saturday an investigation into the vandalism was ongoing, and no arrests had been made.
The first literary clue was a cryptic e-mail sent at 10:30am last Friday, the day the damage was discovered.
It was sent from an untraceable e-mail address to Tokolos Stencils, a Cape Town stencil and graffito activist collective.
The mail asked that they “inform the wider world” that Rhodes had lost his nose.
Tokolos Stencils later explained that they did not know the - sender and were not involved.
The e-mail address the mail was sent from was temporary and disposable, making tracking its sender near impossible.
The e-mail, which the Weekend Argus has seen, reads: “We have stolen the nose of Rhodes at the memorial on the hill dedicated to this racist, thief, murderer and of course philanthropist.”
The words “racist, thief, murderer” stood in 30cm red letters to the left of the bust and have been erased by SANparks.
The e-mail continues: “The nose of Rhodes (Gogol) has left his face and developed a life of its own. It now goes on a journey. Where will the nose show up next? Time will tell”.
If the Russian connection holds, Gogol refers to master novelist Nikolai Gogol, in whose absurdist short story The Nose, the protagonist Major Kovalev sees his nose develop a life of its own after being cut off by a barber.
It could be that the e-mail sender was unconnected to the vandalisation of the Rhodes statue, and simply wanted credit for the incident.
However, another graffitto found on the base of the bust’s pedestal, though more oblique, also seems to reference Gogol. It reads: “The master’s nose betrays him.”
According to the Reference Guide to Russian Literature, edited by Professor Neil Cornwell of Bristol University, the theme of betrayal is central to Gogol’s short story.
“(Major Kovalev)… is faced with great loss and even betrayal. The nose, in a sense betrayed its master,” it states.
Cornwell says the loss of the nose makes Kovalev an object of ridicule.
He says the removal of the nose has a deeper meaning: “(It) undermines (Kovalev’s) whole being and forces him to question his identity.”
In Gogol’s story, the nose becomes a civil servant, before returning to the face.
Similar hints of poetic lunacy lurk in the e-mail: “Where will the nose show up next?” ask the unknown writers, who refer to themselves as “we”.
If the vandals are tracing Gogol’s story-arc, easy return to the statue will be difficult as SANparks has tightened security at the memorial.