Don’t abandon me

Colm Tóibín

  • Borges: A Life by Edwin Williamson
    Penguin, 416 pp, £9.99, August 2005, ISBN 0 14 024657 6

On 9 March 1951, Seepersad Naipaul wrote from Trinidad to his son Vidia, who was an undergraduate at Oxford: ‘I am beginning to believe I could have been a writer.’ A month later, Vidia, in a letter to the entire family, wrote: ‘I hope Pa does write, even five hundred words a day. He should begin a novel. He should realise that the society of the West Indies is a very interesting one – one of phoney sophistication.’ Soon, his father wrote again to say that he had in fact started to write five hundred words a day. ‘Let me see how well the resolve works out,’ he wrote. ‘Even now I have not settled the question whether I should work on an autobiographical novel or whether I should exhume Gurudeva.’ Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales had been privately published in Port of Spain in 1943. It would be Seepersad Naipaul’s only book. He died in 1953 at the age of 47.

For writers and artists whose fathers dabbled in art and failed there seems always to be a peculiar intensity in their levels of ambition and determination. It was as though an artist such as Picasso, whose father was a failed painter, or William James, whose father was a failed essayist, or V.S. Naipaul, sought to compensate for his father’s failure while at the same time using his talent as a way of killing the father off, showing his mother who was the real man in the household.

Jorge Luis Borges was in Majorca in 1919, writing his first poems as his father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, was working on his only novel, which, like Seepersad Naipaul’s book, was printed privately. (Borges’s mother later told Bioy Casares that she had spent her life with ‘dos locos’, two madmen – her husband and her son.) The novel, called El Caudillo, published in 1921 when the author was 47 and his son 22, was not a success. Seventeen years later, as his health was failing, Borges Senior suggested that his son rewrite the book, making clear that Jorge Luis, or Georgie as he was known in his family, had been consulted during its composition. ‘I put many metaphors in to please you,’ he told his son, asking him to ‘rewrite the novel in a straightforward way, with all the fine writing and purple patches left out’.

The longest work of fiction Jorge Luis Borges ever produced was quite short: a mere 14 pages. It was called ‘The Congress’ and first published in 1971, although it had been on his mind for many years. Edwin Williamson, in his biography of Borges, writes about the parallels between the story and El Caudillo. Borges sought in his story, according to Williamson, not only to mirror the novel his father wrote ‘but also to transcend it … The basic structure and plot of the two works are identical: there is a powerful chieftain poised between civilisation and barbarism.’ There are many other close connections between the plots of the two stories.

Thus the literary legacy handed to Borges was clear: he would have to fulfil ‘the literary destiny’ that his father ‘had been denied’, as Williamson puts it. The ironies and absurdities of this were not lost on him. In the months after his father’s death he wrote one of his great serious spoofs, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’, a meditation, using a straight face and no ‘fine writing or purple patches’, on the idea of rewriting as an inspired enterprise, and on the concept of the writer as a force of culture imprisoned by language and time to such an extent that plagiarism becomes innovation, and reading itself a form of literary experiment.

It may also not have been lost on Borges, and it is not lost on the reader, that ‘The Congress’ is not only a version of El Caudillo, but also a parody of Borges’s earlier work, playing with all his old tricks, using a deadpan narrative, full of recondite facts and obscure references, to coax a shadow universe into pure existence. It was obviously written by someone who had read Borges. By 1971, however, Borges was clearly not himself. In ‘Borges and I’, he wrote:

I must remain in Borges rather than in myself (if in fact I am a self), and yet I recognise myself less in his books than in many others, or in the rich strumming of a guitar. Some years ago I tried to get away from him: I went from suburban mythologies to playing games with time and infinity. But these are Borges’s games now – I will have to think of something else.

With Borges it is always dangerous to infer that biographical material – his love life, his jobs, or his relationship with friends or family – inspired the tone and content of certain works. Although there may be ample evidence for such a reading, especially in his poems, there is a real possibility that the books he read mattered much more to Borges than the mere events of his life. Six months before his father’s death, Williamson points out, Borges wrote a book review for an Argentine magazine which is much more likely to have offered the inspiration for ‘Pierre Menard’ than his father’s vain request. The book was Paul Valéry’s Introduction à la poétique. Williamson writes: ‘The same text, according to Borges, could mean different things to different readers in different periods, and he quoted a line from a poem by Cervantes to show that a reader in the 20th century would derive a different sense from the very same words.’ Borges wrote: ‘Time – a friend to Cervantes – has corrected the proofs for him.’

While his father’s example offered him a bookish future and literary ambitions, Borges’s mother’s legacy was more ambiguous and difficult and perhaps more powerful. She was acutely conscious of her family’s history and status in Argentina. She was pure criollo, of Spanish descent born in South America, descended from the early settlers, men deeply involved in the creation of an independent Argentina. Her grandfather led the cavalry charge at the battle of Junín in 1824, the second last battle in the liberation of South America. Later, after the battle of Ayacucho, he was promoted to the rank of colonel by Simón Bolívar. This was merely one of the heroic deeds done by members of her family that made her proud, and of which she spoke constantly.

From his mother, Borges heard a great deal about old glories and fame that had faded, with the implication that he somehow could restore the family to its former level of importance. ‘As most of my people had been soldiers,’ he wrote, ‘and I knew I would never be, I felt ashamed, quite early, to be a bookish kind of person and not a man of action.’ Yet the presence of his ancestors’ swords in the house and their lives as men of action obsessed him all his life. He wrote about knife fights and daggers and swords with a relish that only the truly sedentary can feel: ‘In a desk drawer, among rough drafts and letters, the dagger endlessly dreams its simple tiger’s dream, and, grasping it, the hand comes alive because the metal comes alive, sensing in every touch the killer for whom it was wrought.’

Borges’s grandfather on his father’s side was also a colonel who fought in battles. He married an Englishwoman, Fanny Haslam, leaving her a widow with two sons three years after their marriage, when he was shot in one of the many internal feuds that beset Argentine affairs. (‘The bullet which shot dead Francisco Borges’ is mentioned in ‘Things’, one of Borges’s best poems.) Fanny and her sons spoke English at home; Fanny ran the household as though they were in England. Borges was deeply attached to his grandmother; her version of England was as influential as his mother’s account of the family’s former splendour. Fanny travelled to Europe with the Borges family and lived close to them in Buenos Aires until her death in 1935, at the age of 93.

The Buenos Aires that Borges loved and celebrated was not the new, rich city teeming with immigrants from the south of Italy or from Galicia. It was the old city of the criollos that his mother had known, and the area around Palermo in the north of the city, down on its luck, where his father built a house beside Fanny Haslam’s house and where Jorge Luis and his sister, Norah, were brought up. Close to Palermo was open countryside. A city both half imagined and half built (‘Only one thing was missing – the street had no other side’) replaced in Borges’s imagination ‘the greedy streets/ jostling with crowds and traffic’. He and his sister did not play with children who were rough. Since his mother had contempt for the new rich of the city and no time for the new immigrants, it was easier to keep the children secluded.

Borges was taught to read Spanish by his mother and English by his grandmother. Later, an English tutor was employed. Once Borges could read he was free, even though he was sickly and solitary. ‘If I were asked to name the chief event in my life,’ he wrote, ‘I should say my father’s library.’ He did not go to school until he was 11. He must have been a strange sight, small, bookish, precocious, full of stories about heroic ancestors. He was bullied by other boys from the beginning until he was withdrawn from the school. ‘One of his recurrent nightmares as an adult,’ Williamson writes, ‘was of being tormented by dwarfs and little boys.’ Three years later he was sent to secondary school, but not for long. In 1913 his father decided to take the family to Europe and educate the children in Geneva where he could be treated by a famous doctor for an eye disease from which he suffered .

Thus, early in 1914, the Borges family rented out their property in Buenos Aires and began what was almost a decade of wandering in Europe. Like the James family, they would be dragged by a restless father from city to city, from hotel to rented quarters. As with William and Henry James, this life apart from their peers would be the making of Borges as an artist, but it would mean that his life, when he returned to Argentina, would be more complicated. Once more, school was a nightmare since he did not speak the same language as his classmates; once more, as his ability to read French improved, he found that the only comfort available was in books. He read Carlyle in English, and soon began to read philosophy in German. In 1917, when he was 18, he began a friendship with someone his own age, Maurice Abramowicz, who also loved books and poetry. It was the first of many such sustaining literary friendships.

The Borges family spent the war years in Switzerland; once the war was over they moved to Spain: first to Barcelona, then to Majorca, then to Seville and Madrid. Jorge Luis was writing poetry and allying himself with any young Spanish avant-garde writers he could find. The group with which he became involved in Seville and Madrid was called the Ultraísta movement. They were close in aims and style to the Imagists, and influenced by the work and personalities of Apollinaire and Marinetti. Borges loved staying up all night talking books and poetry, sitting in cafés and walking the streets; Madrid, where the family stayed for two months, was a perfect site for this. In the city, Borges got to know many of the leading young Spanish poets. When he left Madrid to go back to Majorca with his family, he had young literary men in Madrid and in Geneva to write to regularly, sending new poems and letters of hope and despair about the work he was attempting. ‘I lack a goal,’ he wrote to Abramowicz, ‘or rather I have too many goals before me. I think I’m sunk, and won’t be able to salvage more than two or three metaphors from the wreckage.’

In 1921, after an absence of seven years, the family returned to Buenos Aires. Borges had very little formal education, no qualifications and no friends. He walked the streets of the Palermo district where he had grown up, and then began to explore other parts of the city, until the city itself became the subject of his first book of poems:

If things are void of substance
and if this teeming Buenos Aires
is no more than a dream
made up by souls in a common act of magic,
there is an instant
when its existence is gravely endangered
and that is the shuddering instant of daybreak

He was an exile in his own country. He wrote to a friend in Spain: ‘Don’t abandon me in this exile of mine, which is overrun by arrivistes, by correct youths lacking any mental equipment, and decorative young ladies.’ Once more, however, he found a kindred spirit, a friend of his father’s called Macedonio Fernández, who met with friends on a Saturday night in a café to discuss matters such as ‘the uses of metaphor or the inexistence of the self’. In these months in Buenos Aires, as his father promised and then postponed a return to Europe, Borges also began to write philosophical essays with titles like ‘The Nothingness of Personality’ and ‘The Blue Sky Is Sky and Is Blue’. Soon, he became involved in a number of literary magazines.

In July 1923, the Borges family, complete with Fanny Haslam, set sail for Europe again, spending a year wandering in England, France, Switzerland and the Iberian Peninsula. Borges renewed friendships in Madrid. Williamson in his biography is ‘virtually certain’ that Borges met Lorca on this visit, but it is absolutely certain in any case that he read Lorca’s work and paid real attention to his efforts at blending folk poetry with the most modern techniques.

This work that Lorca was doing became for Borges and his friends in Argentina, as it would for writers in every country on the periphery, a working-out of a serious dilemma: whether to adopt a full European Modernist identity or to describe Argentina (or Trinidad, or Ireland) in all its colour and exotic variety to the world. If the second choice were to be taken in Argentina, there was a great example: a long narrative poem, using a great deal of dialect, by José Hernández called El Gaucho Martín Fierro, the first part of which was published in 1872. The poem quickly became immensely popular, its six-line ballad-like stanzas glorifying the life of the Argentine pampas and the rough, brave cowboys who inhabited them. The poem was published in English in a great translation by Walter Owen in 1935:

And on the spot like two mad bulls
Into each other we tore;
The man was quick, but a bit too rash,
And a backhand slash soon settled his hash,
And I left him grunting and thrashing about,
With his tripes all over the floor.

‘The figure of the gaucho,’ Williamson writes, ‘thus came to embody the unresolved question of national identity, a question that would gnaw away at the Argentine conscience and would resurface periodically in a violent impulse to hold onto or to retrieve some vital essence that might be lost as Argentina acquired the trappings of a modern nation.’ Indeed, Hernández’s impulse in writing the first part of the poem was to protest against Argentina turning its back on its heritage and becoming unduly modern and civilised.

In a lecture he gave in Buenos Aires in 1950 about gaucho literature, Borges very cleverly ducked the choice between Martín Fierro and a pure European example. He pointed out that the richness of gaucho literature in Argentina arose not from the gaucho’s isolation but from the close relationship many of the gaucho writers had with the literary world of Buenos Aires. ‘Gaucho poetry,’ he wrote, ‘is a perhaps unique fusion between the city spirit and rural forms.’ The following year, in a brilliant and wise lecture called ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, he returned to the subject, pointing out that El Gaucho Martín Fierro and other poems by Hernández’s contemporaries did not come direct from an oral tradition, but were highly wrought literary artefacts. ‘I believe that Martín Fierro,’ he wrote, ‘is the most lasting work we Argentines have written; I also believe, with equal intensity, that we cannot take Martín Fierro to be, as has sometimes been said, our Bible, our canonical book.’ His argument was with critics who suggested that ‘the lexicon, techniques and subject-matter of gauchesco poetry should enlighten the contemporary writer, and are a point of departure and perhaps an archetype.’ He attacked the idea that ‘Argentine poetry must abound in Argentine differential traits and in Argentine local colour.’

Borges admired Martín Fierro, then, for its highly self-conscious manipulation of language and for its hybrid nature. In 1924, he read Joyce’s Ulysses and found a template for what he would view as the role of peripheral societies in the creation of literature. Of Irish writers he wrote:

The fact of feeling themselves to be Irish, to be different, was enough to enable them to make innovations in English culture. I believe that Argentines, and South Americans in general, are in an analogous situation; we can take on all the European subjects, take them on without superstition and with an irreverence that can have, and already has had, fortunate consequences.

This was written in 1951, when most of Borges’s great work had been done, but as early as 1925 he was writing and arguing the case for a new and strange cosmopolitanism which would also make a hero of the local: ‘Already Buenos Aires, more than a city, is a country, and one must find the poetry and the music and the painting and the religion and the metaphysics that will do justice to its grandeur. That is the extent of my hope, which invites us all to be gods and to work towards its incarnation.’ Over the next few years, as he wrote a short biography of a minor poet of the city’s suburbs, he would refine this view; he would come to see both his city and his country as places of estrangement and their legacy as thin; he would accept a need to create a universe in their place and find a language precise enough to deform and re-create the essential contours of that new world.

In 1951, to illustrate his point, he described his story ‘Death and the Compass’, composed nine years earlier, as

a kind of nightmare, a nightmare in which elements of Buenos Aires appear, deformed by the horror of the nightmare; and in that story, when I think of the Paseo Colón, I call it Rue de Toulon, when I think of the quintas of Adrogué, I call them Triste-le-Roy; after the story was published my friends told me that at last they had found the flavour of the outskirts of Buenos Aires in my writing. Precisely because I had not abandoned myself to the dream, I was able to achieve, after so many years, what I once sought in vain.

In the early 1930s Borges began to consider what could be done in fiction. ‘He was proposing an aesthetics of radical mistrust,’ Williamson writes. ‘His basic contention was that fiction did not depend on the illusion of reality; what mattered ultimately was an author’s ability to generate “poetic faith” in his reader.’ Fiction, Borges believed, did not hold up a mirror to reality, instead it became ‘an autonomous sphere of corroborations, omens and monuments’.

In 1931 the magazine Sur was launched by Victoria Ocampo, a member of one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Argentina, a woman ‘easily dictatorial and excessively bossy’ in Borges’s words. She would play a significant role in winning him fame as a writer. Borges continued to write essays and reviews and to take part in literary faction fighting. In 1933 he found his first real job, working on the literary supplement of a daily paper. Here he wrote a number of fictionalised biographies and some fables; he assembled them in his first book of fiction, A Universal History of Infamy, which was published in April 1936; by the end of the year it had sold 37 copies. Borges had placed himself in what was for him a fortunate position of having no world to describe, except an invented one, and no audience to speak of, allowing him the luxury to address his fictions to one or two of his friends. The world could, if it pleased, listen in, but it would take time.

Bioy Casares, the reader who would matter most to Borges, came, like Ocampo, from the higher reaches of Argentine society. Ocampo introduced them in 1932, when Bioy was 18 and Borges 32. Borges’s mother must have been pleased at his friendship with this scion of the cattle-ranching oligarchy whose father was a cabinet minister and whose family owned one of the largest dairy businesses in the country. Bioy was handsome, self-confident and well-read. He would come to own what was perhaps the largest personal library in all of South America.[1] He also owned an estate in the country where Borges spent some time in 1935. Both men loved recondite references, strange books, literary jokes. Bioy, like Borges, had no illusions about his fellow countrymen’s interest in serious literature, but he had many other illusions and he sought now with his new friend to put them into print.

After Borges lost his job at the literary supplement, he began his career as a librarian in January 1938 in a working-class district on the other side of Buenos Aires. It was ignominious. There were so few books in the library that they did not need anyone to catalogue them; fifty people were doing a job that a third of them could have easily done. When Borges attempted to do some work, he was taken aside and told that he would ruin it for the rest of them. His colleagues had no interest in books. Borges did his day’s work in an hour. The pay was miserable. In his ‘Autobiographical Essay’, he wrote: ‘Sometimes in the evening, as I walked the ten blocks to the tramline, my eyes would be filled with tears.’ He kept sane by working on translations, including a selection of Kafka’s stories. Soon after he began his work in the library his father died.

Over the next two years Borges published some of his best fiction. ‘Pierre Menard’ appeared in Sur in May 1939, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ a year later. In between, he wrote ‘The Library of Babel’. In December 1940, Sur published ‘The Circular Ruins’ and the following month ‘The Lottery in Babylon’, and ‘A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain’ three months later. These were gathered into a book, The Garden of Forking Paths, which Sur published at the end of 1941. While the author’s friends viewed this as a significant literary event, it failed to win any of the National Awards for Literature, the judges deeming it inappropriate to recommend to the Argentine people ‘an exotic and decadent work’ that followed ‘certain deviant tendencies of contemporary English literature’, hovering ‘between the tale of fantasy, a pretentious and recondite erudition, and detective fiction’.

The eight stories which make up the sixty pages of The Garden of Forking Paths represent Borges’s best work. For any biographer an exhumation and an autopsy of the years during which they were composed is a great challenge. It is hard to allow for the possibility that nothing, nothing at all, caused these to come into being. Borges did not keep diaries or write many letters; in interviews done years later he tended to be vague and misleading.

It is possible that certain things which happened in 1939 and 1940 mattered. His translating Kafka, for example; his having a magazine at his disposal with an imperious editor and an international circulation; his father’s death; his dreadful job with seven or eight hours a day free to do nothing; his reading of Dante while travelling on the tram to and from work – or perhaps more importantly his claim to have done so; the outbreak of war and his deep opposition to the Nazi and Peronist regimes; his rejection by a woman with whom he had fallen in love; his need to amuse and impress Bioy Casares. Any biographer has to take these into account, and Williamson does so. He gives, however, an extraordinary emphasis in his book to Borges’s relationship with a number of women, suggesting that these doomed and deeply unhappy relationships were fundamental to Borges’s work.

Borges, it is true, spent much of his life hanging out with women who would neither sleep with him nor marry him. The advantage for any biographer is that if you throw a stone in Buenos Aires you are likely to hit one of these women or their many descendants, or indeed their books of memoir. Since there is nothing much to do in the city, other than bang saucepans together as a protest against government policy, discussing Borges’s love life has become as popular as polo.

The story begins in Geneva where, it is said, Borges Senior asked his son, then aged 19, if he had ever slept with a woman. When Borges said no, his father arranged ‘to help the youth negotiate the usual rites of passage to manhood’, as Williamson puts it, by giving him the address of a brothel and telling him that ‘a woman would be waiting there’ at an appointed time. It was, of course, a disaster. Borges Junior was shocked at the idea that he was sharing a woman with his father. Afterwards, according to Williamson, the adolescent Borges was taken to see a doctor who recommended a change of climate and fresh air and exercise. Williamson’s footnote for this points us to page 50 of Maria Esther Vázquez’s Borges: Esplendor y Derrota (1996). Vázquez had known Borges well, but this is no excuse for her account of the aftermath of his visit to the brothel: ‘He had such a terrible crisis that he cried for three successive days; he did not eat nor sleep … he only cried.’ She goes on: ‘With the stoicism of a monk, this healthy young man seemed to give up the necessities of the body to find in literature the only source of satisfaction and enjoyment.’

Even had Vázquez written that Borges cried for merely two days and then rose on the third, I would not believe a word of it. Nor do I believe the account in James Woodall’s life of Borges, also published in 1996: ‘What happened is a matter for speculation. It seems probable that Georgie’s virginity ended with the predictable fumbling and rush of any inexperienced teenage male, though he was especially horrified at the loss of physical self-possession at the moment of climax.’ Woodall points then to a reference to this disastrous sexual initiation in Borges’s story ‘The Other’, published in 1975. Borges, in the story, meets his double and tells him: ‘Nor have I forgotten a certain afternoon in a second-floor apartment on the Plaza Dubourg.’ His double corrects him: ‘Dufour.’ And he accepts the correction. Woodall quotes an earlier biographer who has, in his wisdom, pinpointed the place of assignation nominated by Borges Senior as the rue Général Dufour in Geneva.

It really is possible that all of this is rubbish, that, despite the breathless accounts by a number of his women friends who fell for the story, Borges’s father never sent him to a brothel at all and that something much less dramatic – his first reading of Whitman, for example – happened on the Plaza, or rue, Dufour. Or else Borges put the name in for no reason, just as he briefly allowed in the same story American bank-notes to carry a date.

We do have real evidence, however, that Borges went to brothels in Majorca in 1921. His literary group used to meet in a brothel, or what innocent young men might have thought was a brothel.[2] Borges wrote to the writer Guillermo de Torre, who would marry Norah in 1928, about ‘feeling up the breasts or thighs of the smiling, uncomprehending girls’. And in a letter to Abramowicz, he wrote: ‘And then at roulette I enjoyed an unheard-of run of luck – at least for me – (60 pesetas with a capital of one peseta!) which allowed me to score three nights in a row at the brothel. A sumptuously filthy blonde, and a brunette we called “The Princess” on whose humanity I took off as if flying a plane or riding a horse.’ He also wrote about his love for a prostitute called Luz: ‘I tell you, I really loved that Luz: she was so playful with me and behaved with such ingenuous indecency. She was like a cathedral and also like a bitch.’

While it is possible some of this is true, it reads more like boasting and is treated with caution by Williamson. Nonetheless, Borges himself, the arch-priest of pure invention trading as deep research, would surely have been appalled at the inability of Vázquez, Woodall, Williamson and many more who have not yet written their books to create at least the illusion of verisimilitude in their statements and assertions about his early sex life.

Williamson, however, follows every lead. Each intellectual woman who rejected Borges is given star treatment, and he cleverly finds clues in the poems and stories. Borges, during all this time, was living with his mother and going slowly blind. One evening, when he was out with one of his women friends, Estela Canto (who, in her book Borges a contraluz, would propagate the story of Borges and the brothel), Canto overheard him calling his mother on the telephone: ‘Yes, yes, Mother … Yes … from here we’ll be going to the Ambassador … Yes, Mother. Estela Canto … Yes, Mother.’ He was more than 45 years old. Williamson lists many of the other women with whom Borges was in love. For their names alone they deserve to be remembered: Norah Lange, Haydée Lange, Marta Mosquera Eastman, Susana Bombal, Esther Zemborain de Torres Duggan, Pippina Diehl de Moreno Hueyo, Beatriz Bibiloni Webster de Bullrich, Ema Risso Platero, Silvina Bullrich, Delia Ingenieros, to name but a few. Williamson’s analysis of Borges’s ‘single, involuntary criterion’ in choosing these women is interesting. ‘He fell for women who would be unacceptable to Mother, either because they came from an inferior social class or because they did not meet the high standards of respectability required by Doña Leonor.’

By the late 1950s, Borges was blind. Doña Leonor became, Williamson writes, ‘her son’s secretary and business manager, his general guide and protector, and she had gathered about her a circle of well-bred ladies who fussed over Georgie and acted as an admiring chorus to his every success and distinction.’ One visitor remembered the maid asking Doña Leonor if she should pour some wine for Borges and the mother answering: ‘El niño no toma vino’ (‘the boy doesn’t have wine’). By this time Borges’s work was winning attention in Europe, and he was being invited to lecture at universities in the United States. Some of the time his mother, now almost ninety, accompanied him.

Borges dreamed of marriage, of getting away from her. She helped him by suggesting a woman whom he had known years earlier, now widowed. She was called Elsa Astete. While Borges’s mother liked her for her deference, nobody else did. She was not smart or high enough on the social scale for Bioy or his wife. Other friends of Borges thought her ‘frumpish, provincial and rather plain’. They were married in 1967. The marriage was not a success.

Once more, Borges was luckier in his friendships than in his loves. In 1967, in the United States, he met the translator and writer Norman Thomas di Giovanni, then in his mid-thirties. Over the next few years, as he moved to Buenos Aires, di Giovanni co-ordinated the translation of Borges’s poetry into English, using some of the best contemporary poets and translators such as Alastair Reid, Richard Wilbur and John Hollander. He also worked with Borges on translating his prose works into English, and coaxed him into producing new stories and a long autobiographical piece for the New Yorker. All of this is vividly described in The Lesson of the Master: On Borges and His Work, which di Giovanni published in 2003.

When Borges wanted to leave his wife, di Giovanni masterminded his departure. Since there was no divorce in Argentina in 1970, they had to move with care. Elsa had no clue that he was going to leave her. ‘That chill grey winter’s morning,’ di Giovanni wrote,

I lay in wait for Borges in the doorway of the National Library, and the moment he arrived I leaped into his taxi and off we sped for the intown airport. Borges, a trembling leaf and utterly exhausted after a sleepless night, confessed that his greatest fear had been that he might blurt the whole thing out to Elsa at any moment.

Elsa was at home making puchero, a stew. She had asked Borges as he went out the door what he wanted for lunch. ‘What pained me most,’ she said in an interview in 1993, ‘was that when Borges asked for puchero, he already knew that he would not be coming back.’

In the early years of the 21st century, Jorge Luis Borges and Bioy Casares joined Marcel Proust and Lillian Hellman to become a distinguished band of writers whose maids wrote books about them. Bioy’s maid Jovina got in first; her book, Los Bioy, which is a wonderful account of half a century of service, appeared in 2002. It is clear that she felt a great deal of affection for Bioy and his wife; despite her best intentions, however, she managed to portray them as capricious and mad and permanently horny, a wealthy pair of monsters, like two figures in an early Polanski film. Then in 2004 came Epifanía Uveda de Robledo, or Fanny, Borges’s maid. She had revenge on her mind, for the slights inflicted on her by Borges’s mother and the injuries, real or imaginary, inflicted by Maria Kodama, whom Borges married some months before his death. Fanny managed also in El Señor Borges to make her master seem like a saint and herself a reticent and faithful maid for whom one could, in all conscience, write a glowing reference.

In 1939 Bioy Casares married Silvina Ocampo, the sister of Victoria Ocampo. Silvina was 12 years older than him. Jovina came to work for them ten years later and stayed with them until the death of Bioy in 1999. Bioy loved women. He told Jovina: ‘I have a defect, Jovina, a great weakness. I love women so much that if a broomstick dressed up as a woman, I would follow that broomstick.’ Jovina realised that his marriage did not prevent him from broomsticking to his heart’s content on a daily basis, usually in the afternoon: he played tennis in the morning, and in the evening wrote his books and had supper with his wife and Borges. When, after supper, he and Borges collaborated on their books, Jovina noticed that they roared with laughter.

Bioy made no bones about his affairs. One day, for example, he arrived home with a baby, who was thereafter brought up in his household as his daughter. Later, other fruits of his great sexual energy would emerge. Silvina believed that Jovina had powers and every time she sent one of her manuscripts or a manuscript by Bioy to the publishers she would make Jovina touch the pages to give them luck. Silvina depended on Jovina for the smallest things and demanded that her food be personally served by Jovina or she would not eat it. (Similarly, Borges’s mother would ring for the maid in the middle of night and explain that she merely wanted to see her.) When Bioy was in hospital he demanded his meals be cooked and carried to the hospital by Jovina. He was, however, embarrassed at leaving the food the hospital provided, and suggested to Jovina that she could solve the problem by eating this food herself on her visits with the meals she had cooked for him at home.

Jovina had to keep at bay the many women who wished to sleep with Bioy, including at times Elena, the wife of Octavio Paz, who had a long affair with him. Elena, Jovina writes, decided one day, because she was going to Paris with her daughter, to send her eight cats from Mexico to Argentina by plane to be minded by the Bioys. Jovina’s husband went to the airport to collect the cats; their papers were in order and he took them to the Bioys’ apartment only to find that Silvina would not let them in. Much drama ensued.

While Jovina wrote with relish and love and understanding of her employers’ madnesses and foibles, Fanny, Borges’s maid, wrote in some bitterness. Having worked for the family for more than 35 years, she was left homeless and almost penniless on Borges’s death. Compared to the Bioys’ household, where it was all go, Leonor Borges maintained a very respectable and stolid home life for herself and her son. The Borges’s apartment was tiny – the Bioys’ had 22 rooms – yet Fanny was forced to wear a uniform and cut her hair short; there was never a radio or a television in the apartment. Borges, she notes, was an obedient son. Every time he came home from somewhere he would go to his mother’s bedroom and tell her what he had done. Then he would undress for bed and find Fanny and put out his hand and receive two sweets. He did this, according to Fanny, all his life.

Borges was much tortured, according to Fanny, by the possibility of winning the Nobel Prize. On the day of the announcement journalists would queue outside his door. This would happen year after year. The news each time that he had not won would make him very sad.

Fanny’s book really comes into its own when Borges gets married. Borges the bachelor was dressed by Fanny every morning. ‘I dressed him entirely, including learning to make the knot of his tie. I put on his clothes, his socks, his shoes, his trousers, everything. Absolutely everything.’ The wife, however, told Fanny that every morning she opened a drawer and told Borges to dress himself. One day, as a result, he appeared with two odd shoes. The wife also forbade his old nightgown that went down to his ankles and made him wear pyjamas.

Fanny blames his mother for the wedding: ‘Doña Leonor was a good woman, but very authoritarian. It was the mother and the sister who arranged the wedding because he never said anything, never knew anything … They bought the furniture, they bought the apartment.’ The son, however, now 68 years old, did not want to sleep with his new wife, and demanded his old single bed be brought to the new apartment. On the wedding night his mother suggested that he and Elsa go to a hotel, but Borges wanted to sleep in his own bed and his mother had to accompany Elsa to the bus stop and send her home. In the morning when Fanny woke Borges she asked him how he had slept on his wedding night. He looked at her and smiled and said: ‘I dreamed all night that I was hanging out of a tram.’

Maria Kodama, who features in the second half of Fanny’s book, was born in 1937, the daughter of a German mother and a Japanese father. She appeared first in Borges’s circle in the mid-1960s, attending his classes on Anglo-Saxon at the National Library in Buenos Aires. She gave off an aura of reticence, mystery and self-possession. Fanny remembered her coming to the Borges apartment with other students:

One day Maria stayed behind when the other students left and began to chat with Doña Leonor. Señor Borges’s mother … asked her: ‘Are you in love with Georgie?’ Kodama, perhaps a little surprised by the question, replied that no, she was in love with Borges’s writing, but not with the man. When Maria had gone Doña Leonor said in a loud voice, but as though she were talking to herself: ‘That one with the yellow skin is going to end up with everything.’

In 1971, after the break-up of his marriage, Borges travelled to Iceland, where he found Kodama waiting for him. It was here, it seems, that they became lovers. Back home, however, Borges returned to live with his mother, now 95, and Fanny. Leonor did not die until 1975, when she was 99. She was buried with the rest of her ancestors in the family vault in the Recoleta cemetery where Borges himself would be expected to lie when his time came.

After his mother’s death, Borges travelled with Kodama, but in Buenos Aires he did not let his sister or the maid or his closest friends know the truth of their relationship. A great deal that is cruel and unusual has been written about Kodama, but Williamson in his biography is not keen to add to these comments. He recognises that for the last 15 of Borges’s life, this was Borges’s closest and happiest relationship.[3]

On 28 August 1979, Borges changed his will. Previously, he had left his estate to his sister and his two nephews; now, he left it to Kodama. He also left Fanny half of whatever money he had in his bank accounts, but later, in 1985, deleted this clause, leaving her very little. This clearly reflected his irritation at Fanny’s disapproval of Kodama.

In the years between the death of his mother and his own death, Borges and Maria seemed to be on a permanent book tour and appeared to have derived nothing but pleasure from it. By the end of 1985, however, it was clear to Borges that he was dying. He wished to go back to Europe, but kept this a secret from many friends and from his sister. In the middle of December, he and Kodama arrived in Geneva. Kodama, in an interview in 1999, told Williamson:

He told me that we would be going to Italy and then we would stop over in Switzerland. I thought it was logical that he should wish to say his farewells, but when we arrived in Geneva, he said: ‘We’re not going back, we’re staying.’ It was clear to me that he had decided this beforehand, when he learned that he was going to die.

Works of genius come from strange sources. It is unimaginable that Borges or Bioy or Silvina Ocampo could have created works of social realism in which domestic life would appear as a feature. All three created work which was playful, self-referential, which invented its own world partly because the world outside was not of much interest to them. It could be argued that Borges’s work is essentially apolitical, that he was more interested in literature than life and that his work is all the better for this. But it is difficult for any writer in an unstable, emerging or peripheral country, no matter how enigmatic or recondite the work, to remain outside politics.

It is also possible to argue that Borges’s work was indeed political, that he himself was a political activist all his life, that his lack of interest as an artist in the world outside the book arose from his and his mother’s dislike of the dominant elements in Argentine society, that his style and his system developed not despite Argentine society but because of it.

Yet Borges’s politics were not simple. In 1928, for example, he supported Hipólito Irigoyen of the Radical Party for the presidency, not merely because Borges’s grandfather had been a friend of the party’s founder, but because Irigoyen was more moderate in his nationalism and more open to democracy than his opponents. Borges wrote a manifesto in favour of Irigoyen, and signed a letter to the newspaper supporting him. Two years after Irigoyen’s victory, when the military took over, Borges wrote to a friend in Brazil: ‘We have sacrificed Myth for the sake of realism … Now we have independence under martial law, a sycophantic press, the perpetual wrangling of the left-wingers, and the fiction that the former dotty administration was “cruel and tyrannical”.’

The fact that his hero had been deserted by the people of Buenos Aires, who had ransacked Irigoyen’s house, helped Borges to get over his idealisation of the city. In 1931 he wrote a savage attack on his country in an essay, ‘Our Inabilities’. He attacked the ‘pompous self-valorisation of the place our country occupies among the other nations’ and ‘the unrestrainable delight in failure’. Finally, he wrote, ‘a poverty of imagination defines our place in death.’ The old world of the criollo, so longed for by Borges’s mother, could only be found, he said, in the northern provinces of Uruguay.

In 1934, Borges wrote the preface to a poem celebrating a failed armed uprising, which he called ‘a patriotic uprising’, by militant members of the Radical Party. Yet, while some of his friends supported the reduction of Argentina’s economic dependence on Britain, Borges understood that this would move them slowly towards a sort of Argentine nationalism bordering on fascism. His own views on what Argentina might become were outlined in 1928 and reiterated in a radio broadcast in 1936:

This is a confederacy without precedent: a generous adventure by men of different bloodlines whose aim is not to preserve their lineages but to forget those lineages in the end; these are bloodlines that seek the night. The criollo is one of the confederates. The criollo, who was responsible for creating the nation as such, has now chosen to be one among many.

In this speech, Borges wrote the death sentence for his family’s sense of power and entitlement in Argentina.

As the 1930s went on and writers took sides, Borges moved sideways. There is no evidence that he even attended the PEN International Congress in Buenos Aires in September 1936, in which political division was the main feature. Instead, Borges and Bioy set up a magazine called Destiempo, whose title indicated, Bioy said, ‘our wish to disassociate ourselves from the superstitions of the age’.

Borges felt a very deep attachment to an old and unsullied Argentina, but understood, as the 1930s went on, that such an attachment could lead easily to a native fascism. He wrote a number of trenchant attacks on Hitler’s regime in Germany. He wrote in support of a cultural openness, an Argentine cosmopolitanism, but grew to believe, with some justification, that he and a few friends carried this banner alone. He ceased to believe in the city or its people, he believed that the pampas and the gauchos were sour jokes, he hated the government and he grew at times to distrust history, including his own. The way was open for him to write a fiction that would be distinguished by its pure determination to leave most things out.

The possibility that Borges would have a quiet life, writing his stories, seeing his women, pleasing and annoying his mother, supping with Bioy and working in the library, came to an end in February 1946 with the election of Perón, whom Borges had vehemently opposed. Borges’s name was on a list of 2000 state employees who, for one reason or another, were to be dismissed. In his ‘Autobiographical Essay’, Borges wrote about what happened: ‘I was honoured with the news that I had been “promoted” out of the library to the inspectorship of poultry and rabbits in the public markets.’ When he asked why, he was told (he claims): ‘You were on the side of the Allies – what do you expect?’

Williamson rightly deals with Borges’s version of this story with suspicion. He argues convincingly that Perón himself would not have even known about such a low-level dismissal, that the job inspecting the ‘poultry and rabbits’ was probably invented by Borges. He writes that Borges’s being moved rather than completely dismissed was done as a favour to him, and that he was probably, in fact, appointed an inspector at the Department of Beekeeping: that is, apicultura rather than poultry (avicultura). But the latter job was too good a story even for the Peronist press, who gloated.

A crowded dinner was given in Borges’s honour by his supporters. His speech against Perón was read out: ‘Dictatorships breed oppression; dictatorships breed servility; dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy … Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the many duties of a writer. Need I remind readers of Martín Fierro … that individualism is an old Argentine virtue?’ One of the younger writers at the dinner recalled that Borges at this time was regarded ‘as a sort of anti-Perón’.

After a few months out of a job, Borges began to work as a teacher of literature, travelling through Argentina to give lectures:

At 47 I found a new and exciting life opening up for me. I travelled up and down Argentina and Uruguay, lecturing on Swedenborg, Blake, the Persian and Chinese mystics, Buddhism, gauchesco poetry, the Icelandic sagas, Heine, Dante, expressionism and Cervantes. Sometimes my mother or a friend accompanied me. Not only did I end up making far more money than at the library, but I enjoyed the work and felt that it justified me.

While Borges gave lectures, his mother, at the thought of Perón in the Casa Rosada, the president’s house, went mad. ‘The Peronist threat to the constitution,’ Williamson writes, ‘brought out a latent, ancestral heroism in this formidable woman.’ In September 1948, at the age of 72, she joined a demonstration against Perón. When the police came, a few ladies, including Doña Leonor and her daughter, stood their ground and were arrested. They were sentenced to thirty days in jail; Leonor, because of her age, was allowed to spend a month under house arrest, but Norah spent a month in jail in the company of prostitutes.

In 1950, when Perón had effectively made himself president for life, Borges agreed reluctantly to become president of the Argentine Society of Writers. ‘I tried to think as little as possible about politics,’ he wrote.

All the same, just as a person who has toothache thinks about that toothache the moment he wakes up, or a man who has been left by a woman thinks about her the moment he opens his eyes, I used to say to myself every morning, ‘That man is in the Casa Rosada,’ and I would feel upset, and in a way, guilty too, because I thought of the fact of not doing anything or doing so little – but what could I do?

‘In every lecture I gave, I would always express my views against the government,’ Borges wrote. ‘Many distinguished men of letters did not dare set foot inside the doors of the Society of Writers.’ After the death of Eva Perón in 1952, when Borges refused to put up a portrait of Perón and his dead wife on the walls of the society’s premises, the society was closed.

After the fall of Perón in 1955, Borges wrote: ‘I remember the joy we felt; I remember that at that moment no one thought about themselves: their only thought was that the patria had been saved.’ Within weeks, with the help of Victoria Ocampo, among others, he was appointed director of the National Library. Doña Leonor was delighted; the family was being restored to a position of importance.

The fall of Perón represented a problem for his opponents. It was clear that in any free election he would win, with considerable support from the trade unions and the city’s poor. Nonetheless, he was a demagogue who behaved like a dictator. He was replaced by the military, themselves representatives of an old oligarchy. Borges supported the new regime whole-heartedly as they banned the Peronist party, including banners, symbols and music. When a further military coup, led by men who wished to allow free elections, was put down, the government, ignoring the sentences handed down by a military tribunal, executed 32 of the rebels by firing squad.

Elections were held, with Perón and his party banned. Perón ordered his supporters to return blank ballot papers and these numbered more than the votes for the legal parties. Borges and Bioy drew up a manifesto to support the government. Borges wrote that Argentina was rapidly recovering its health, ‘but there still remain many recalcitrant patients who refuse to get better and who resist revolutionary therapy. We shall have to persist with the treatment, increasing the dose of democracy for the more rebellious to see if they can be cured once and for all.’ Borges, for his support, was rewarded with the Chair of English and American Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In his ‘Autobiographical Essay’, he gives a funny, folksy version of the reason for his appointment: ‘Other candidates had sent in painstaking lists of their translations, papers, lectures and other achievements. I limited myself to the following statement: “Quite unwittingly, I have been qualifying myself for this position throughout my life.” My plain approach gained the day.’ This is rubbish. He got the job because of his support for the regime. His mother, who had conspired to get it for him, had thus further reason for joy.

Other writers, who were as anti-Peronist as Borges, were appalled by the new government and Borges’s blanket support for it. These included Ernesto Sábato. Borges’s predicament is put succinctly by Williamson: ‘How do you create a democracy when the largest sector of the electorate will elect a totalitarian leader who is ideologically opposed to liberal democracy?’ In 1963, as Perón increased his influence, and new elections were called, Borges left the Radical Party and joined the Conservatives, believing them to have better anti-Peronist credentials. He allowed them to hold a reception to announce his membership at which he made a speech.

The spectre of Perón continued to haunt Argentina. In 1973, his party, once more legalised, won the election, which paved the way for his return. Borges told an Italian newspaper that those who voted for Perón were ‘six million idiots’. He was now too famous to be fired from his job and was told that he could remain without interference. He resigned, however, in October 1973. Nine months later, Perón died, to be replaced by his second wife, Isabelita.

Borges had lost his arch-enemy. He had no one now to denounce except the people. ‘Our country,’ he said in 1975, ‘is going through a moral crisis. We have taken to worshipping luxury, money and other myths and dogmas. I think ours is a venal country.’ Around this time Naipaul came to Argentina to cast his cold eye on Borges and his country. He made many sweeping statements, including the following two marvellous sentences: ‘There is no history in Argentina. There are no archives; there are only graffiti, polemics and school lessons.’ Perón, Borges told Naipaul, ‘represented the scum of the earth’.

‘For the contemplation of his country’s history,’ Naipaul wrote, ‘Borges substitutes ancestor worship.’ But in the second half of the 1970s, as the Peronists developed a terrorist army, a new breed of army general emerged in control of the country. The Montoneros were more vicious than any previous military power. The myth of military splendour which had created Argentina, and the sense of glamorous lone knife-fighters, both of which had nourished Borges’s work, became a pale parody of what was really happening in the streets of his city. ‘Perhaps, then,’ Naipaul wrote, ‘parallel with the vision of art, there has developed, in Borges, a subsidiary vision, however unacknowledged, of reality. And now, at any rate, the real world can no longer be denied.’

The real world came to Borges in the guise of the young men who visited his apartment to read to him. Buenos Aires is now full of them. The best account of that experience is by Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading (1996) and With Borges (2004):

In that sitting-room, under a Piranesi engraving of circular Roman ruins, I read Kipling, Stevenson, Henry James, several entries of the Brockhaus German encyclopedia, verses of Marino, of Enrique Banchs, of Heine (but these last ones he knew by heart, so I would barely have begun my reading when his hesitant voice picked up and recited from memory; the hesitation was only in the cadence, not in the words themselves, which he remembered unerringly) … I was the driver, but the landscape, the unfurling space, belonged to the one being driven … Borges chose the book, Borges stopped me or asked me to continue, Borges interrupted to comment, Borges allowed the words to come to him. I was invisible.

Paul Theroux in The Old Patagonian Express (1979) remembered reading Kipling ballads to the blind old man, being stopped after every few stanzas as Borges exclaimed how beautiful they were, his favourite being ‘The Ballad of East and West’. Evita, he told Theroux, was ‘a common prostitute’, as the writer, taking a more benign view than Naipaul, went back to see him again and again.

He stayed up late, eager to talk, eager to be read to; and he was good company. By degrees, he turned me into Boswell … There was something of the charlatan in him – he had a way of speechifying, and I knew he was repeating something he had said a hundred times before. He had the beginnings of a stutter, but he calmed that with his hands. He was occasionally magisterial, but he could be the opposite, a kind of student, his face elfin with attentiveness, his fingers locked together. His face became aristocratic in repose, and when he bared his yellow teeth in the exaggerated grin he used to show pleasure – he laughed hard at his own jokes – his face came alight and he looked like a French actor who has realised that he has successfully stolen the show.

In 1976, Isabelita Perón’s government was replaced by a military dictatorship, the most murderous regime in Argentine history. As in 1955, Borges was so pleased at the end of the Peronist regime that he was happy to support the new one. He had lunch with General Videla and thanked him ‘for what he had done for the patria, having saved it from chaos, from the abject state we were in, and, above all, from idiocy’. This support was noted by Chile; Pinochet offered him an Order of Merit, which he accepted. He then agreed, against the advice of his friends, to visit Chile to accept an honorary doctorate. He attended a private dinner with Pinochet. He made a mad speech praising the sword of his ancestors and the sword that was ‘drawing the Argentine republic out of the quagmire’. This would not have helped him to win the Nobel Prize for which he was heavily tipped that year.

Nor would his remarks on a visit to Spain in 1976 have done him much good. He called Videla’s regime ‘a government of soldiers, of gentlemen, of decent people’. He declared his admiration for what General Franco had done in Spain. He then, sounding like Salvador Dalí, made rude remarks about Lorca: ‘Neither he nor his poetry have ever interested me. I think he’s a minor poet, a picturesque poet, a sort of professional Andalusian … The circumstances of his death were rather favourable to him; it’s convenient for a poet to die in that fashion and, what’s more, his death provided Antonio Machado with the opportunity to write a marvellous poem.’

Like a good number of Argentines, Borges discovered the truth of what was happening when he was outside Argentina. In Spain in 1980, where he received the Cervantes Prize, the highest honour which can be given to a writer in the Spanish language, he indicated a change of heart about the regime. While he had refused to support the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who were the first to protest openly about the disappearances, he soon began to relent. He was visited by a woman from an old Buenos Aires family who told him that her daughter had disappeared. He told her ‘he lived a very insulated life because he was blind and could not read the newspapers’, but that he believed her story. When she brought a friend whose daughter had also disappeared, Borges decided to sign a petition calling on the government to provide information on the fate of the disappeared. He persuaded Bioy to sign also. In a dispute between Argentina and Chile over islands in the Beagle Channel, he supported Chile. Nonetheless, Borges’s new dislike of the regime was not unequivocal. Even by the end of 1981 he would say: ‘I think this government is a necessary evil because democracy would give us another Frondizi’ – one of the leaders of the Radical Party in the 1950s – ‘or at worst another Perón.’

Once the Falklands War was over – he had described it as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’ – he could no longer maintain the view that the military government was a necessary evil. He revised his position.

It is true we have had dictators … but they had popular support. These are gangsters. This is a country of madmen. No, this is a country of wise but desperate people in the hands of madmen … I believe our only hope is democracy. Our only way out is an election … If elections are held the Peronists will win … and if they aren’t held we shall continue to be governed by people who are equally discredited.

In the end, when the election was won by Raúl Alfonsín of the Radical Party in 1983, Borges said: ‘We had emerged from a nightmare, and that collective act of faith was what could save us all.’

For 1984 and 1985, however, Argentina was forced to relive the nightmare, first through the commission of enquiry into the disappearances chaired by Ernesto Sábato, which reported in December 1984, and then by the trial of the generals, with evidence given by the relatives of the disappeared and by those who were tortured. Borges attended this trial in July 1985 and heard evidence of torture. He expressed his horror to reporters afterwards and in an open letter to a newspaper.

It must have occurred to him that his own earlier support for the generals was well remembered. As Alfonsín’s position slowly weakened in 1985, Borges realised that one or other of the parties he now hated – the Peronists or the military – would retake power in Argentina. On 16 October, in an interview with a Swiss journalist, he expressed the wish to become a Swiss citizen and to die in Switzerland. By that time, he knew he was dying. In the new will in which he disinherited Fanny, he also left his sister his share in the family tomb in the Recoleta cemetery where his mother was buried.

His final journey to Europe with Maria Kodama would become controversial in Argentina. Fanny insisted he did not wish to leave: ‘Of one thing I am sure: Señor Borges did not want to go, but he did not have sufficient energy to oppose whoever brought him. He said to me in a half-broken voice: “Fanny, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go.”’

This, considering the evidence, seems unlikely. His going alone to Europe with Kodama knowing that he would not return to Argentina seems to have been a deliberate act. In a late poem, ‘The Web’, he began:

Which of my cities will I die in?
Geneva, where revelation came to me
Through Virgil and Tacitus, certainly not from Calvin?

After the Falklands War he had also written a poem, ‘The Confederates’, in favour of Switzerland, praising its ‘tower of reason and firm faith’ where different races and religions and languages had ‘resolved to forget their differences and accentuate their affinities’. He made it the title poem of his last book of verse.

On 26 April, while in Geneva, Borges and Maria Kodama were married by proxy in Paraguay. He died in Geneva on 14 June. He is buried close to John Calvin in the Cimetière de Pleinpalais, also known as the Cemetery of the Kings, close to the old city in Geneva. It is a calm, unostentatious cemetery, with single graves mostly of famous people, the very opposite in tone to the Recoleta in Buenos Aires in which baroque and gothic-windowed family vaults do battle with the rococo and the overadorned. Borges’s gravestone was clearly designed by Kodama with references and images which mattered to them both in their relationship. In death, his grave did not make him an Argentine hero, but rather the husband of a woman he had loved for the last decade or more of his life. After Borges’s death, Kodama did not make many friends among Borges’s family and associates. Both Norah Borges’s sons and Fanny sought to have the revised will thrown out, but they lost. Kodama runs Borges’s estate.

In 1999 Kodama told Edwin Williamson that Borges was fully aware of the political import of his dying in Geneva and his wishing to be buried there. ‘You see,’ Borges had told her, ‘I’ve become a kind of myth, and whenever the issue arises of my being buried over here, people may recall the book I have written, The Confederates, and they’ll think about it, people will come here and ask themselves: why? That will be my small contribution to changing the world.’

In Buenos Aires, Borges’s sister, Norah, made a statement: ‘I have heard through the newspapers that my brother has died in Geneva, far from us and from many friends, of a terrible illness that we did not know he had. I am surprised that his last wish was to be buried there, he always wanted to be with his ancestors and with our mother in the Recoleta.’

While Kodama suggested that Borges’s reasons for dying in Geneva were essentially political and public, there were also private reasons. Borges spoke a great deal about his father in the last weeks. His father had taken him to this city at the age of 15 in an effort to civilise him, to remove him from the world of his ancestors to a place where the shadows were more complex and rich, from a place, run by his mother, where battles were glorified, to a place, run by his father, where poetry would matter and becoming a writer could be a real vocation. His father, Borges had written, ‘was such a modest man that he would have liked being invisible’. Now, in the weeks before his death, Borges wrote to the Spanish news agency EFE asking to be left alone: ‘I am a free man. I have decided to stay in Geneva, because I associate Geneva with the happiest days of my life … I think it strange that someone should not understand and respect this decision by a man who, like a certain character of Wells’s, has resolved to be an invisible man.’

[1] Some time in 1998 I had lunch with Bioy in his favourite restaurant, near the Recoleta cemetery. He raised the subject of his English bookseller. It was either Hatchard’s or Blackwell’s, but whichever it was he thought he should move to the other. He needed to know what I thought. I did not know. I told him about the internet but he said he was too old. I asked him if he could always find the book he was looking for among his own books at home, and he said it was hard, that his parents had left him a vast library in French and Spanish, and he himself read in English and Italian as well. In a tired and melancholy tone, he said: ‘Some people say I have the largest personal library in South America.’

[2] In the old days – I mean the late 1970s – certain bars in Spanish cities had red lights, which made the clergy and parents think they were brothels. There were often women who wanted you to buy them drink, and once, to my consternation (I was 20 at the time, and fresh from Ireland), the woman behind the bar told me in whispers that she was really a guy so it would not be a problem after all. These places were not really brothels in that they had no upstairs part, or I don’t think they had, but they had a risk attached and young men of a literary nature loved them.

[3] I was sitting with Maria Kodama and the poet Anthony Cronin in 1982 in Dublin and he asked her if Borges had ever seen her. She smiled sadly (she was remarkably beautiful) and said: ‘No, he has never seen me.’