Essay: James Halfordon María Kodama and Jorge Luis Borges

Such Loneliness in that Gold: María Kodama on Life After Borges

James Halford is a recipient of a 2016 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the first of three essays by Halford that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Ali Jane Smith and Ben Brooker.

In 1976, Jorge Luis Borges dedicated a poem called ‘The Moon’ to María Kodama, a shy, beautiful, Japanese-Argentine woman, 37 years his junior:

There is such loneliness in that gold.
The moon of the nights is not the moon
Whom the first Adam saw. The long centuries
Of human vigil have filled her
With ancient lament. Look at her. She is your mirror.

Their story is well-known in Argentina. They met in 1953 in a bookstore on the calle Florida in downtown Buenos Aires.

‘Excuse me. I heard you give a lecture when I was little girl.’

‘Ah, did you? And now you’re all grown up?’

‘No, I’m in high school. In my fourth year.’

She was sixteen and he was 54 – already famous in Argentina, but not yet abroad. He was about to lose what was left of his sight. ‘He only saw light and shadow. But from my voice he would have known I was very young.’ Borges invited Kodama to join his Saturday morning Anglo-Saxon study group at the National Library, where he was director.

‘Old English? Like Shakespeare?’

‘No, much older. Tenth century.’

‘It must be very difficult.’

‘Yes, but I don’t know it either. I am proposing that we study it together.’

They married in 1986, two months before he died.

I met María Kodama at the Café Persicco in the upscale Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Recoleta on a grey Sunday morning in May. Outside, the avenida Corrientes was slick from the previous night’s storm, still strewn with yellow and orange leaves. A homeless man playing chess at the table by the entrance was shouting at his invisible opponent. As Kodama pushed through the glass doors, looking for me, I felt a surge of nervousness. We’d arranged to meet earlier in the day, but had rescheduled because of a mix up about the location. She could be prickly, my Argentine friends had warned. ‘You’re meeting the FIFA of Argentine literature,’ one young Buenos Aires poet said: ‘Watch out she doesn’t sue you.’

She was a slender woman, a little shorter than I expected. Smartly but simply dressed in a cream-coloured jacket and grey scarf, she wore a silver bangle on her right wrist, and large, square rings on the first and third fingers of her left hand. Though the Argentine press delight in printing unflattering photographs of her, Kodama, who is 79, never wears make up. As in nearly all the pictures I’d seen, she wore light colours – a carefully considered choice, I suspect, from someone well aware the word ‘widow,’ will appear prominently beneath every image. She smiled as I rose to greet her. When she kissed my cheek, I forgot in my relief, to call her señora:

María, perdón. I’m sorry for the confusion. I’m an academic not a journalist.’

No te preocupes. Don’t worry. It’s better you’re not a journalist.

The Persicco is a noisy, modern place with white and yellow checked tiles and shiny brass fixtures. Some of the other customers stared at her, whispering among themselves, as we sat down together. Kodama gave me the best part of three hours of her time, describing her life with Borges and discussing his work. Her generosity and warmth were at odds with everything I’d ever read or heard about her.

Relatively little is known about María Kodama’s early life. Her father, Yosaburo Kodama, was born in Japan in 1905, and was raised by his grandmother, his only relative. When she died, he left his homeland for good. Kodama doesn’t know the exact year of his departure or his reasons for emigrating. He was one of thousands of young Japanese who left for the Americas between the 1868 Meiji restoration and the second world war. Better economic prospects and avoiding conscription into the imperial military were common motives. As restrictions on Japanese immigration were introduced in the North, increasing numbers settled in Latin America.

Yosaburo planned to go to the US, with a stopover in Argentina to visit a friend of a friend. But in Buenos Aires, he met and fell in love with a 17-year-old Argentine-German pianist named María Antonia Schweizer. Kodama says María saw Yosabura as ‘an exotic prince from faraway lands’. He was nine years older than her. Though he soon found work with a pharmaceutical company in Buenos Aires, the marriage was unhappy, and the couple separated when their daughter was only three years old. María Kodama won’t talk about her brother, Jorge: ‘Let’s just say I’m an only child.’

Born on 10 March, 1937, Kodama grew into a shy, solitary girl, with few friends of her own age, and certainly no boyfriends. She lived with her staunchly Catholic mother and grandmother, but spent weekends with her Japanese father: ‘I was brought up between two cultures. My grandmother was all about God, the Fatherland, and the family home; my father was a Shintoist. One would say white and the other would say black… I had to choose or I would have gone mad.’

Kodama chose Japan. Until she met Borges, Yosaburo Kodama was the most important person in her life. Kodama remembers him teaching her the basics of the Japanese language, and telling her stories of the country’s history and culture. He also contributed to her aesthetic education: ‘My father liked art very much. From a very young age, he gave me books of paintings and took me to exhibitions.’ On one of their weekend excursions she asked him to define beauty. The next week, by way of answer, he gave her an art book containing an image of a sculpture in the Louvre, the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

‘But it doesn’t have a head.’

‘Who told you that beauty is about the head? Look at the folds of the tunic. They’re being blown by the wind off the sea. To capture the sea breeze for eternity, that’s beauty.’

Kodama told me she was drawn to Borges because his ethical and aesthetic outlook reminded her of her father. ‘Borges always joked that my father had educated me for him, because thanks to all that training in my younger days, I could later describe for him the reality he could no longer see.’ The two men met on several occasions, but were not close.

Kodama has told the story of her first encounter with Borges’s writing in dozens of interview and public speeches. When she was five years old her private English tutor read her Borges’s ‘Two English Poems,’ which were dedicated to Beatriz Bibiloni de Webster, one of many respectable Buenos Aires society ladies he unsuccessfully courted in the 1930s. She repeated this favourite anecdote to me at the Café Persicco:

‘In these poems, which are in English because it was the language he spoke with that señora, he lists all the things he can offer her, and they are the opposite of what one might expect. He offers her his solitude, his sadness, his failure, and “the hunger of my heart”.   When she [the tutor] translated this for me, I asked her “what is hunger of the heart?” because obviously for a five-year-old child, hunger is only the need to eat. She told me I would understand when I grew up: “The hunger of my heart.”‘

María Kodama has never remarried. She has dedicated her life to promoting Borges’s work through the Foundation she runs in his name. I thought that by pushing her to talk a little less about him, and a little more about herself, I might steer her away from the official narrative. But I found her reluctant to emerge from his shadow.

‘Can you describe an ordinary week in your life?’

‘I travel a good deal to talk about Borges’s work overseas. When I am at home in Buenos Aires, I spend a lot of time at home reading. Many people ask me to comment on theses or academic studies about Borges.’

‘But for fun?’

‘I don’t have a television set or an email account. I go to a live show nearly every night: music, theatre, or dance. Last night I saw the Shen Yun dance troupe from China. They are very interested in Borges in China nowadays. The complete works have been translated into Mandarin.’

Since her answers kept spiralling back to Borges, I tried another angle. I knew she had studied literature at the University of Buenos Aires and had noticed she always made a point of being introduced in public as a writer, translator, and teacher, though most people know her as Borges’s wife. So I asked her what she had written and whether any of her work had been published. She laughed:

‘I have never published anything because I am always writing prologues for other people’s books. I write for pleasure. Borges adored the short stories I used to write and wanted me to publish them. He wanted to write the prologue, but I never let him do that.’

Kodama didn’t even mention her forthcoming book, which was published a few months after we spoke. Homenaje a Borges (Homage to Borges) is a collection of twenty, serious-minded lectures about Borges’s work that Kodama has delivered at various universities around the world since his death. Its one unguarded moment is the dedication: ‘To Borges, my love for ever and ever and a day.’ The only piece of creative writing I managed to find published in her name was a brief memoir that appeared in the New York Times in 2011, in which she described the view from her apartment. Her window looks onto Borges’s old library, a building full of ‘books once touched by his hands.’

By the late 1960s, the bond between Borges and Kodama had evolved beyond friendship. The biographies are unanimous that it lacked any physical dimension; I was too polite to ask. Aside from their regular language studies, they took to meeting at the confitería La Fragata and at his home, where she would assist him with translations, transcribe new work, and read aloud for him from his favourite books. In those years, Kodama studied literature at the University of Buenos Aires, where Borges was a professor, and she earned a living teaching Spanish to Japanese businessmen. She had worked hard to establish financial independence from her family, who disapproved of the professor’s frequent telephone calls and gifts of books. It was Borges, blind and unmarried in his sixties, who continued to live with his mother. Under the watchful eye of Leonora Acevedo de Borges, the professor and his protégé exercised an almost Victorian level of propriety in the decade of free love. Kodama dressed modestly in white blouses and plaid skirts, and the two always addressed each other with the formal ‘usted,’ in place of the familiar ‘tu.’

‘She liked me, and we respected each other,’ Kodama says of Doña Leonora. For most of Borges’s adult life, the writer’s mother acted as his carer, literary secretary, and travelling companion. As Doña Leonora’s health declined and her son’s fame increased, the bachelor sought a wife. Between 1967 and 1970, during Borges’s short-lived, unhappy first marriage to Elsa Astete Millan – a widow, and an old flame from the 1940s – Kodama was apparently the only woman allowed to visit him at home. She was considered too young to be a threat.

Around 1970, as Borges and Astete Millan were separating, Kodama ceased being his student, assistant, and companion and became his confidant, carer, collaborator, and muse. The writer moved back in with his aging mother, now bedbound and unable to speak, for the last three years of her life. According to the official version of the story, Doña Leonora one day brought Kodama and Borges’s hands together over her body.

I was in Argentina to attend a two-week seminar at the National University of San Martin, and to visit the Buenos Aires International Book Fair. During a panel at the Book Fair, I heard Roberto Alifano and Alejandro Vaccaro, a couple of Borges’s old acquaintances from the Argentine Society of Authors, give their view of Kodama: ‘María Kodama es alguien que vive de viuda,’ said Alifano. ‘María Kodama is someone who earns a living as a widow.’

Kodama has had long battles with both these men in the Argentine courts and the media. ‘Alifano is a rat,’ Kodama told me across the table. She reserved her strongest criticism for her husband’s best friend, Adolfo Bioy Casares, who spent much of the 1990s working on a 1600-page compilation of his diary entries about Borges from across their forty-year friendship – to be published only after both men were dead. The book infuriated María Kodama when it finally appeared in 2006. ‘María was his love,’ Bioy Casares admits, but he expresses doubts that Borges’s feelings were reciprocated. He also says the writer ‘lived in fear of making her angry.’ Kodama is depicted as a jealous, dominating figure who isolated Borges from his old friends and may even have pressured him to remain in Europe at the end of his life rather than return home.

Speaking to me, her anger focused on the book’s alleged inaccuracy and its betrayal of trust: ‘I ask you: if a man writes a book in which he invents and distorts your words, or puts words in your mouth he doesn’t have the courage to say. And he publishes it after you’ve both died (which is already an act of cowardice, because he doesn’t want to take responsibility). If the two of you met in the next world, would you still think that man was your friend?’

I asked her to respond to a few other influential names linked with Borges, starting with the Argentine critic Beatriz Sarlo, a friend in their university days, who has suggested in recent years that Borges’s texts will never be properly edited while Kodama is alive: ‘That is not an academic judgement, but a personal one that affects my work. I brought a lawsuit against her because we are academic colleagues, and she ought to know the damage that can be caused by unfounded words about someone.’

When I asked her view of leading American Borges scholar, Daniel Balderston, she zeroed in on the small fraction of his work that deals with queer themes in Borges’s writing. ‘Borges was not a homosexual.’ Before I could mention any more names, she leaned confidentially across the table, lifting her fringe to show me her slightly swollen and discoloured right eyebrow. ‘I keep my hair long to hide it.’ Without naming the condition, she told me she has been living with chronic pain for some years, treating it with strong medication. As far as I know she hasn’t discussed her ill health publicly. But she brought it up openly with me, knowing I was going to write about our meeting. Kodama insisted her health has not affected her work as director of the Borges Foundation, but admitted it has affected her sleep and her moods. She has said and done some things she regretted, and has lost many friends. About the court cases, however, she was unrepentant: ‘I have been treated like the wicked witch for defending my husband’s legacy… I gave Borges my word that I would take care of his work.’ Her soft voice became steely: ‘I have been through thirty years of hell. I have been defamed.’

In 1975, journalists photographed Borges weeping at his mother’s funeral. His sonnet ‘Remorse,’ written two days later and published in the national newspaper, La Nacion, remains perhaps his most quoted work in Argentina:

I have committed the worst sin of all
That a man can commit. I have not been
My parents bred and bore me for a higher
Faith in the human game…
I let them down. I wasn’t happy.

He would later say to Kodama: ‘please don’t write anything two days after I die because it is bound to be sentimental and weepy and it will pursue you all your life.’

María Kodama regularly points out that while Borges’s complete works from 1923 to 1975 were dedicated to Doña Leonora – ‘mother, my very voice. Here we are the two of us, talking’ – the texts of his final years, were written for her. From around 1973, she began to accompany him abroad on his lecture tours. Invitations from foreign universities, governments, and publishers flowed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Borges’s lectures – delivered in a hesitant, stuttering style – became a significant new strand of his creative output after he lost his sight in 1955. With his blindness he found it impossible to write tightly plotted and densely allusive narratives like those found in the collections Ficciones (1944) and El Aleph (1949). Increasingly, he focused on poetry, short prose, and public lectures.

Kodama and Borges’s journeys together through the Americas, Western Europe, Egypt, Turkey, Iceland and Japan, are documented in Atlas (1984), a travel book pairing Borges’s short texts with Kodama’s photographs. In 2016, the Borges Foundation has put together a travelling exhibition of these photos to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Borges’s death: Borges and María Kodama placing incense at a Shinto shrine; in Mexican sombreros at the base of a Mayan pyramid; in the basket of a hot air balloon about to soar over the vineyards of the Napa Valley. During their travels, Kodama became his eyes. She discovered he had an enormous visual memory with very clear and detailed recollections of artworks he had seen in European museums as a teenager, and she took to describing the places they visited for his benefit. ‘He would always remember a poem related to every place. It was a magical, marvellous relationship.’

In other ways, they were an unusual couple. The two never co-habited and always slept in separate hotel rooms when travelling. In the evenings, she would fold his clothes for the next day and leave them on the end of the bed. One Borges’s poems from this period, ‘El amenzado,’ expresses a powerful fear of his own emotions and body.

This is love. I shall have to hide or flee…
A woman aches through the whole of my body.

Kodama has repeatedly told journalists that Borges pestered her to marry him throughout the 1970s, but she always refused, citing the trauma of her parents’ separation. She was fearful of being taken over by Borges’s ‘monstrous fame.’ In 1979 – apparently without her knowledge – he made her the primary benefactor of his will. ‘If I had known, I would have left him.’

When Borges was diagnosed with liver cancer in late 1984, he refused chemotherapy. To avoid media attention, he elected to keep his condition secret from everyone but María Kodama and his doctor. Not even his sister or his old friend Bioy Casares were told. ‘Borges told me he didn’t want his death turned into a spectacle and his last breath sold on cassette tape,’ Kodama confided. The writer revised the terms of his earlier will, again, Kodama says, without her knowledge. Borges’s new will kept her as sole heir to his literary estate, but significantly reduced the cash payout to Fani Uveda, his live-in housekeeper of more than three decades, and the minor provisions made for his sister’s children.

On November 28, 1985, Borges and Kodama left Argentina for Europe, with permission from the writer’s doctor. Kodama believed the purpose of the tour was to say their goodbyes in Italy and Switzerland. But when they arrived in Geneva, Borges said he wanted to stay. ‘It was clear to me that he had decided this beforehand, when he learned that he was going to die.’ In late December, the couple installed themselves in rooms 308 and 309 of the Hotel l’Arbalète. ‘I am a free man,’ Borges announced in a statement to the suspicious press. ‘I have decided to stay in Geneva, because I associate Geneva with the happiest days of my life’. He had lived in Switzerland with his family during the first world war. For him, it was a place that represented neutrality, privacy, and peace. ‘The Confederates,’ the final text in his final collection, takes the creation of the old Swiss confederacy in 1291 as a symbol of his hopes for a world order based on ‘forgetting differences and accentuating affinities’. In Geneva, according to Kodama, Borges continued to pressure her on the question of marriage. They had kept their relationship secret for fifteen years and he wanted to acknowledge it publicly before he died. He asked his friend Franco María Ricci, an Italian editor, to intervene: ‘Franco, convince María to marry me; I want to die knowing she’s my wife.’

‘María, you’ve been with him since you were young,’ the editor said to Kodama. ‘It’s the only thing that will give him happiness.’

She insisted she was not prepared to become financially dependent on him and compromise her personal freedom. ‘You are a prisoner of freedom,’ Borges said. In March 1986 she finally relented. Borges ordered his Argentine lawyer to begin the process of seeking a marriage licence in Paraguay – a legal workaround that was necessary because he had separated from but never divorced his first wife. ‘My marriage was like the legion of other marriages registered overseas when divorce was not possible in Argentina,’ said Kodama. ‘It was meant to be a secret between the two of us to make him happy.’

But in May the same year, shortly after the paperwork came through, the news leaked, and made headlines in Buenos Aires. Borges died peacefully in his sleep on Saturday June 14, with Kodama holding his hand. Argentina’s most famous agnostic was buried a few plots from John Calvin in Geneva’s Plainpalais cementery. It was not until after Borges was dead, Kodama says, that his lawyers at home called her in Switzerland and told her she was her husband’s heir and literary executor.

The period Kodama calls her ‘thirty years of hell’ began when Borges died. The writer had left his affairs in a mess. The new widow not only had to contend with the grievances of Borges’s housekeeper, nephews, and the Argentine media, but also the unique editorial difficulties posed by a fragmented oeuvre consisting of hundreds of very short texts.

First came challenges to the validity of the marriage and of Borges’s final testament. Borges’s housekeeper, Fani Uveda, and his three nephews, claimed Kodama had influenced the elderly writer to change his will. The Argentine courts, however, found that Borges entered willingly into the marriage, and that the union was not even necessary for Kodama to become the executor of his will. Her claim to the estate was upheld.

The widow then embarked on a long series of legal battles of her own, aimed at consolidating her control over all author rights in all languages and combating attacks on her reputation. One target was the American translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, with whom Borges had collaborated on some of the best English versions of his work, between 1967 and 1972.  After the writer’s death, the Borges and di Giovanni versions – for which the translator was receiving a generous fifty percent of royalties – were allowed to go out of print. In the 1990s, Viking/Penguin commissioned new English versions of Borges’s collected works in three hefty volumes. The collected non-fictions are a vital addition to the Borges corpus in English. But most reviewers, myself included, found the new translations of the poetry and fiction inferior to their predecessors. The Penguin/Viking editions are now the most widely available version of Borges for English speakers. Kodama also succeeded in blocking di Giovanni from republishing the earlier translations online (though you can still find them if you know where to look). The best English translations of Borges still widely available are those in Yates and Irby’s anthology, Labyrinths (New Directions: 1962, 2007) but the volume contains only a tiny fraction of his total output.

Much of the odium directed toward María Kodama over the years seems really to be aimed at Borges himself. The writer was far from universally admired in Argentina during his lifetime. His stance against the Peron regime, and his opposition to the Cuban revolution alienated the left, while his publicly voiced doubts about the Argentine people’s readiness for democracy, and his support for military dictatorships at home and in Chile (later retracted) probably cost him the Nobel Prize. Borges’s decision to die abroad only reinforced the image some of his countrymen have of him as a reactionary snob. Even today, everyone in Argentina has an opinion about Borges. ‘Why are you foreigners so obsessed with Borges?’ scolded the chatty manager of my hotel: ‘He wasn’t even an Argentine writer. He was a European writer.’ Kodama has tried to combat this perception by emphasising the importance of the writer’s hometown to his creative output during the commemorations of the thirtieth anniversary of his death. ‘Borges, like the ancient Greeks, belonged to his city… He was born in Buenos Aires and Buenos Aires was his very being.’

Borges’s Buenos Aires, however, was the expanding port city of the 1880s and 1890s re-imaged from the vantage point of the 1920s and 1930s. It can be hard to find any trace of that city. The house at 994 on the calle Maipu, where the writer was born in 1899, is an apartment complex now, with a small commemorative plaque beside the door. Though the Palermo street where Borges spent most of his childhood, the old calle Serrano, has been renamed in his honour, the house where the family lived in those years – a few blocks south of the Plaza Italia – has been demolished and replaced by a rundown bar. The old national library in San Telmo, where Borges was director between 1955 and 1973, is in urgent need of renovation, though it still hosts the national institutes of contemporary dance and musicology. Meanwhile, the Borges Museum at 1660 on the calle Anchorena in the Recoleta, which doubles as the headquarters of Kodama’s international foundation, has only a tenuous connection to the writer’s life (Borges and his mother lived next door for a few years in the 1940s). One of Kodama’s assistants told me that the Foundation has been trying to buy the adjacent building back from the neighbours for years: ‘but the señora doesn’t want to sell.’

The regionalist ‘Borges of Buenos Aires’ exists in tension with the cosmopolitan fabulist who is read around the world in dozens of languages. In 2016, in addition to the thirtieth anniversary celebrations in Argentina, María Kodama has presided over similar commemorations in Switzerland, Spain, and New York. ‘All of these events demonstrate that his work remains alive,’ she says. The process of monumentalising Borges in brass, stone, and deluxe editions, now thirty years advanced, contrasts markedly with the writer’s own sly prediction of his place in literary history. The epilogue to the original 1974 Emecé edition of his Spanish, Obras Completas takes the form of an apocryphal 2074 encyclopedia entry. The ‘author and autodidact’: ‘José Borges,’ we are told, is mainly remembered for never having written a novel.

Among scholars, the most serious complaint about the way the Foundation has managed the writer’s legacy is that there is no proper critical edition of Borges in his own language. I asked Kodama whether such an edition will ever appear. ‘I have heard that question many times and I ask you who is the person capable of editing a critical edition of Borges? I am willing to review people’s qualifications.’ Ultimately, Kodama says, she does not know of anyone she would trust with the job. For the time being, the scholarly apparatus in the Spanish editions of Borges used by researchers compares badly with what is available for other classic twentieth-century authors like Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, or Marcel Proust.

This need not have been the case. The publisher Sudamericana, owned by Penguin/Random House, outbid Borges’s old publisher Emecé for the worldwide rights to his work at the 2010 Frankfurt Bookfair. News reports suggest they paid close to two million euros. Unfortunately, the 2010 Sudamericana edition, the version I own, was a missed opportunity to produce a quality integral Borges for the twenty-first century. It simultaneously respects and ignores the author’s wishes. Many of the early texts have been extensively rewritten by the older Borges, who grew to dislike his youthful style but there are no notes to indicate the changes. In the same edition, three early books of essays the writer suppressed entirely during his lifetime are republished in their original form. It is almost impossible to trace the development of Borges’s style and ideas using this or any other edition because none of them offer even the most minimal explanation of the chaotic, non-chronological sequencing of the collected texts. Kodama herself acknowledges that the other main Spanish-language option on the market, the 2009 Emecé critical edition, is really only an annotated edition. The notes are manifestly inadequate for the purpose of scholarship.

Unfortunately for English and Spanish speakers, the best version of Borges in any language is the French Oeuvres Complètes published by Gallimard. The second edition was delayed for ten years as Kodama brought charges against Borges’s old friend, the editor Jean-Pierre Bernès, in the French courts. She eventually succeeded in forcing him to hand over copies of recordings he had made while collaborating with Borges in 1986 on the notes for the first edition. As a result of this falling out, non-French speakers are unlikely to be able to access Borges and Jean-Pierre Bernès’s extensive notes any time soon.

More recently, Kodama has used the financial resources and institutional power of the estate to pursue young experimental writers, such as the Spaniard Agustín Fernández Mallo and the Argentine Pablo Katchadjian, who have creatively appropriated Borges’s writing. Katchadjian faced the possibility of up to six years of jail time and a US $80,000 fine for publishing 150 copies of El Aleph Engordado (the Fattened Aleph), his novella-length expansion of Borges’s famous story, through a tiny Argentine independent publisher. Legitimate artistic practice or a violation of intellectual property? Either way, the case more or less destroyed whatever goodwill was left towards Kodama among the younger generation of Spanish-speaking writers and intellectuals.

From the window of the café, a slab of blue sky was visible between the roofs of the grey and brown apartment towers of the Recoleta. As lunchtime approached, I was coming to the end of my three-page list of questions. But Kodama showed no signs of impatience or boredom.

‘What do you miss about Borges?’

‘He is inside me. I feel he accompanies me spiritually and that he has given me the strength to fight for all these years. Yes, I miss the way we had fun together.’

‘As you grow older, what motivates you to keep promoting Borges’s work so energetically through the Foundation?’

‘This has been my job for thirty years. You only give your life to something if you love it madly. If I didn’t love him madly, I wouldn’t do it.’

Others have asked María Kodama what will happen to the estate when she dies. Her answer rarely changes – ‘Why would you ask me that? I plan to live for 200 years’ – so I didn’t ask. Though the conversation often drifted back to Borges, I had learned many things about her over the last three hours: that she cannot cook; that she used to like horse riding and dancing flamenco, but nowadays prefers to meditate and read; that she sleeps only five hours a night; that she is so dispirited by Argentine politics she has not opened a newspaper since the year 2000.

I asked her, before we parted, which of the books she used to read aloud for Borges she most liked to share with him. ‘I liked to read for him in Greek,’ she said. Kodama studied ancient Greek at university, Borges never had. ‘He always said he envied the fact I could read Greek. And I would say, ‘Borges let me have this one thing.’ The Iliad was their favourite. He knew many passages from Homer so well he could follow the gist though he didn’t speak the language. Kodama quoted a passage to me in Greek, there on the sunny corner of Corrientes and Juncal – a scene that was often in her thoughts in Geneva while Borges was dying. A brief Spanish gloss, another kiss on the cheek, and she was gone.

It wasn’t until several weeks later, back in Australia, that I had a chance to look up the passage. I found it in book six of the Iliad, in my copy of Fagles’ translation. When Andromache follows Hector to the gates of Troy, with their baby son in her arms, she begs him not to return to the battlefield because she has already lost her mother, father, and seven brothers, and he is her only surviving family. This was the passage María Kodama recited to me as we parted:

You, Hector – you are my father now, my noble mother
a brother too, and you are my husband, young and warm
and strong!
Pity me, please! Take your stand on the ramparts here,
before you orphan your son and make your wife a widow.

Works Consulted

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The SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowships are supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.