For the Love of Borges

Article excerpt

The year 1996 marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Jorge Luis gorges, Argentina's greatest writer, variously hailed as the father of Latin American magic realism, a master stylist of the Spanish language, and, some even claim, the world's last literary giant. Around the globe, commemorative events unfolded over several months, paying tribute to his genius and his achievements. But the prelude to all this, held during November 1995 in Buenos Aires's municipal Centro Cultural Recoleta, emphasized the man himself, his humanity, his heart: From Borges to Maria Kodama, an exhibition of forty-two paintings by the cream of Argentine artists, each selected to illustrate a line or verse the poet had dedicated to the woman he loved.

Borges and Kodama were married during the waning days of the writer's life, after a unique and intense friendship. Why was their story honored with such a display? Unless they are celebrities in their own right, spouses of famous writers often remain anonymous. But Kodama has been set apart from other helpmates, most obviously because Borges was blind. By forty, this lifelong scholar who called books the most agreeable feature of his destiny, could not read the printed page or write down his own thoughts. "A slow nightfall," as he described his progressively darkening condition, had left him with only contours and the color yellow, then, later in life, nothing. He had to be accompanied wherever he went--by his mother' accommodating friends, tiresome sycophants, and near-strangers. Kodama replaced them all. A slight, self-effacing presence next to a towering myth, she proved the ideal guide and much more.

"She was not just someone to take him by the arm but someone knowledgeable who shared his interests and sense of humor. She really changed his life," says literary expert Rolando Costa Picazo. There was a change in Borges's poetry as well, reflecting the discovery of love and the awakening of passion.

Now, as widow, Kodama is a public figure, so uniquely identified with her husband that it is difficult to find a parallel. Her presence brings his memory into focus; ceremonies honoring Borges are scheduled around her availability. On display at one of these occasions, Kodama is as elegant as any Argentine society matron. More casually soignee, she would fit right into the cosmopolitan ambiance of, say, Paris's Left Bank, but in Buenos Aires, she is noticed, her half-Asian lineage obvious in the most proudly European of Latin American cities. While the unpretentious cafes and restaurants that Kodama favors benefit from word of her discreet patronage, she has also become fair game for the literary paparazzi.

There is no doubt that Kodama fascinates because Borges was fascinating--with his unabashed anglophilia, esoteric predilections, impish sense of humor, occasional malapropisms, and a stoic capacity to endure blindness, as well as public humiliation (especially when Juan Peron demoted him from director of the National Library to inspector of poultry and rabbits) and the perennial denial of the Nobel Prize. But fascination by association makes it easy to forget that Kodama and Borges met, if not as equals, at least on common ground, four years after their first introduction, when he began to tutor her in Old English, his academic specialty, which he had started learning in 1955, after he knew he had lost his sight. She was sixteen at the time, still in high school. "He asked me if I was interested, and I said I was. We would meet at a cafe and he would bring me the books and we would read," she recalls.

Why on earth would an Argentine teenager want to study Old English? Kodama credits her Japanese father with cultivating her interest early on. "I like ancient languages," she explains. "Additionally, since childhood, I've been fascinated by epic literature and poetry, courtly love, and the novels of chivalry. It was a kind of literature that wasn't normal for children in Buenos Aires, but it was normal for me, possibly because of the upbringing my father gave me. …