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Interview with María KODAMA
 Article publié le 6 décembre 2004.


Interview with María Kodama

Jorge Luis Borges and his "secret universe"

Borges found her in her child gaze, when still dressed in adolescence lace. The girl had picked him out to study with him Old English and Icelandic. Mystery joined them : the only certainty, according to Paul Gauguin. The love and art mystery : "for ever and ever... and a day"

Maria Kodama, the writer, was a companion for many years, and then the second wife of the most universal Argentina writer. She published along with him, among other works, Brief Anglo-Saxon Anthology (1978) and Atlas (1984),one more fruit of the couple’s world voyages. Maria was, as well, a great support to Borge’s literary and personal activities, and she helped him as Director of his colection "Biblioteca Personal", that was published incompletely in Argentina on account of the writer’s death.

In this dialogue, I don’t know if it is Maria who speaks about him, or if Jorge Luis Borges - both united in mystery - who talks through the voice of his beloved, from Universe : the "secret garden" they both possessed.

Was Borges a Universe ?
- As Leonardo da Vinci, Borges was extremely complex and full of different shades, a fascinating intelligence and enormous imagination. You know ?... I loved his rabbit like skull and to watch him laugh, because.... he was as a tiger cub under the sun, a very beautiful portrait.
- As many lovers, had he any special nickname for you ?
- He called me "Ulrika", a northern name meaning "little bear"
- "I felt a painful throb in my chest, I felt parched with thirst" he wrote in "El Inmortal". Which was Borges’ thirst ?
- Poetry.
- Was he possessed by the gods, as Plato defines poets in Phoedros ?
- Yes, by the spirit, the "daemon", allowing the poet be a sort of intermediate of what possesses him.
- At his home in Rue Ferdinand, Geneva, being very young, he was wretched, and to make things more so, he would read Dostoievsky ; but in 1916 he discovered Whitman, and was then ashamed of his attitude... the shaman role of poetry awoke him to joy ?
- Sure, due to Whitman’s marvellous and vast outlook, and the literature he created through poetry...Because, as Borges would say, one must write in harmony and balance, it is necessary to know the rules of a sonnet to be able to be able to undo and - only then - try free verse. Or else... one must be born a Whitman.
- According to Philippe Brenot, "talent" implies self knowledge and having been driven to such or such concrete idea ; and "genius", that you never know where you are going to, since you are following a tremendous impulse. Borges, genius and talent ?
- Borges was a genius.. unique, both I don’t agree with Brenot in his definition. For me, to be a genius is a plus to talent : it means introducing a radical change in history. One can have a strong talent without being a genius, without creating.
- It must not have been easily to be the wife of the most universal argentine writer... of someone belonging to mankind.
- Look here... I never felt so with Borges... It would have stunned me. I began with him a disciple-teacher relation when I was very small, and in those days I felt very free, and I talked to him in a very spontaneous and fresh manner... I even discussed authors and other unsustainable things for my age. But I wanted to know him, because his writings that had been read to me created in my being a brotherhood in mystery feeling .
- And what did Borges feel at your ease ?
- He enjoyed it. He knew I was not obsequious, as most are ; and I rather believe destiny does not exist, so as to keep my free will, even at the price of being a prisoner of my freedom. I am free as a jungle beast... even towards him, a genius.
- The idea of being a genius was renewed during the XIX century. Klinger and Schiller opposed Illustration philosophy, and tried to impose spontaneous aesthetics when creation was concerned... was Borges in this line ?
- Yes, but only to start writing, since seeking perfection made him indulge to infinite corrections. His idea was to work on dreams, on the spontaneous rising from the unconscious.
- Were there nightmares in his dreams ?
- At times... and at awaking, he would judge whether his dreams would be useful to write about, the second stage was to decide should it be a story or a poem.
- And as soon as he got up he would have a bath, and start dictating you his texts...true ?
- Yes, to me and others : journalists or students that would visit him. But he would not stop at the impulse stage : He would browse over the texts during the evening, he would polish and correct each check. Till...well... forever !
- Was Borges’ creative power to be understood in the sense of Chomsky’s generative linguistic, as to the inborn human capacity to infinitely create language ?
- Yes, he generated language, but, as I already said, he was not satisfied with his first effort. This is how, specially in prose, he provoked a swerve in the narrative manner of the Spanish language. The two great revolutions in this language came from America : one with the very modern Ruben Darío, and the other with Borges and the radical change he imposed on narrative, changes based on his being bilingual, his conciseness and critic reading, since very small.
- He was a prodigious writer.
- I deem he is essentially a poet, and prodigy in him consisted in feeling from very small which was his destiny...
- And he was a child prodigy. At seven years old he wrote, in English, an abridgement of Greek mythology ; at eight, the story of "La visera fatal" , inspired on a Quixote episode ; at nine he translated Oscar Wilde’s "the Happy Prince" from English.
- Yes, and when he published "The Happy Prince", many thought that it had been translated by his father.
- His father... I don’t forget Borges always felt he heard his voice when he recited, by heart, in English : "you have not been born to die, // immortal bird", from John Keats. And those words revealed poetry to him...
- Yes, Keats was important to him on account of this, but he preferred epics, specially the Anglo Saxon of the IX and X century, and the English ballads . Also Emerson and Browning and...¡Walt Whitman !
- He decided to go to Geneva to die...Was he not afraid ?
- No, because he enjoyed dramatics or - as he would say - sentimental items. Borges lived death also in a natural way : as everyday, as always. He was stoic.
- On his tombstone is written, in Anglo Saxon : "And Ne Forhedan Na". This is : "Let them not fear" Was he not afraid ?
- No, because he took it as an adventure, as a place where he would satisfy his curiosity on life mysteries ... He wanted to know if there was or not something after it.
- But it is almost superhuman not to be afraid to die.
- Well, as you know, he had a sort of oriental way of feeling, on account of all he had read about this philosophy, on Buddhism, Zen and Shintoism. ¡That’s Wisdom ! Know how to enjoy what life offers. "What does ongoing time matter/ if it was full/and ecstasy, He wrote in "Fervor de Buenos Aires".
- Did he all his life have this same willingness to cross the border, whatever should be on the far side ?
- Yes, he had it in all his attitude . Any way, the fact of always having being against the stream means a great courage.
- María, did Borges love you ?
- I believe he did... don’t you think so ?
- And do you love him ? Or, did you love him ?
- I love him.
- A short while ago, the waiter of the bar where we are holding this conversation discovered you "You are Borge’s wife" we heard him say. And in some of the former interviews you said " I am not Borge’s widow I am his love". You spoke in present tense, as often during this talk Does the infinite unify you ?... the "longing for the absolute" as Louis Aragon would put it ?
- I believe that when one finds your other half soul, its forever. For ever and ever and a day.
- Was Borges generous with all life contains ?
- Yes, and also with life’s mysteries ?
- Still, apparently he does not seem to have given importance to some writes. For instance, Julio Cortázar, who also was fascinated by fantastic literature.
- You are wrong, because Borges knew he was a great writer. He discovered him, and called on the second day after Cortázar had left him "Casa Tomada" to read ; and he told him he was going to publish it, and his sister Norah would illustrate it.
- But this relation was dropped... why ?
- Cortázar left Argentina, but then they met at the Prado Museum. When I saw him... with his unmistakable figure, I was admiring Goya’s "El perro semihundido" (semi sunk dog), one of my favourite pictures. I told Borges, and he asked me if I wanted to salute him, and I answered yes, should he want to. "yes, of course, why not" he said.
- You had "your" two writers together, united by art.
- Yes ! And at that very moment Cortázar - a more than consecrated writer by then - notices Borges, he approached, and it was divine, marvellous, unique... one of those non repeatable instants gifted to us by life. Cortázar reminded him how he had taken his first story to him, and stressed Borges’ generosity towards him. Borges laughed and said "Well, I was not mistaken... I was prophetic."
- You share me that moment’s magic"
- Yes, it was magic... that’s the word ! Along with me were two admired and beloved writers... And before such a picture ! Goya-Borges-Cortázar. And the "Perro semihundido" something perfect.
- Still Borges and Cortázar are usually shown as opposite poles in the Argentine literature, and Cortázar is not remembered by the grand critics as he deserved , excepting during 2004, on the anniversary of his death.
- I believe it is a sort of purgatory all writers wade through... after their death their work rises again. And here is the greatest difference between a best seller and the work of a creator.
- "I was born not to accept things as dealt to me" wrote Cortázar - He was a committed writer.
- Yes, he was a committed as a person, but not in all his works ; he wrote fantastic literature stories that are not politicised , and others are.
- And what did Borges think, and what do you, about "El libro de Manuel"
- I didn’t read "El libro de Manuel". I read "Rayuela", and I found it fascinating, a sort of a game, and "Los Premios" is fascinating. It is extraordinary how - after living for so many years far from his country , and with another language - he was able to keep the Buenos Aires language.
- Cortázar was distance and solitude : love, yearning and suffering for Bs.As., as also his eloquent silence.
- It’s true, and I am a strong reader of his stories. In "La noche boca arriba" - one of my preferred - he blends space and time in and extraordinary way, as also in "Prosa del Observatorio", Really a "nouvelle", a fascinating poetical prose. This for me his most interesting phase.
- María : year 1981 and two attitudes. Cortázar in the "Centro Cultural de la Villa de Madrid", and his text on word-power ; and Borges, requesting a hundred year military government, while in Argentina thousands were disappearing.
- Yes, but Borges was deeply committed to his ideas.
- What were his ideas.
- He thought what he published, said, was discussed, was criticised and is still criticised about, seventeen years after his death. He believed that he requested the best. What he felt, he felt. And when he saw that his proposal did not work, he changed. That is : he was neither a flock nor a hypocrite. He was coherent and never betrayed himself, he did not take advantages nor flirted with one or another to his own benefit. And this seems to me extraordinary.
- Did you agree with his opinions ?
- No. We differed and discussed a lot. But I admired him for his honesty.
- Was it your influence that led him to later receive the "Madres de Plaza de Mayo", and shared their feelings.?
- He received them, but I don’t know whether I influenced or not. All I said is that I am a pacifist and that there is nothing worse than using Power for evil.
- Now you are handling a re edition of his works, including scattered texts in newspapers and magazines. The world shall be grateful to you.
- Look here... I believe it shall be important for professors, students and writers, because Borges’ work is a style lesson. It shall allow one see the backstage of what he always did ; the constant re elaboration, specially all about his poetic work.
- Shall you publish "Los salmos rojos", written by Borges when he was eighteen and then in love with the Russian Revolution ?
- No. Borges destroyed the book where this poem was when he was twenty, because at first he thought that the Bolshevik Revolution would rise the knowledge and general conditions of the people. But when he found out that the bosses of those days were just stepping into the tsars’ shoes, he quit this ideology. For good.
- But "los salmos rojos" were published in the "Grecia" Magazine and in some other Spanish one.
- Yes, and in a Geneva journal. But all that was left is the poem "los salmos rojos", that titled the book, and whatever was left is there.
- Did you ever catch him crying ?
- Yes, when I saw the original of "Victoria de Samotracia" emotion made me cry, and Borges cried with me. Seeing this sculpture in a book was the first aesthetics lesson I got from my father.
- When did you hear him laugh ?
- Often. Look here...I enjoy swimming, riding and dancing very much. As a child I studied classic dancing, later I started flamenco, and with my friends I dance rock, salsa... all this. And when Borges accompanied me to my Greek dance classes, he enjoyed himself exceedingly, because - as all the students went to talk with him - my professor used to say to him that I brought Borges along to enjoy "a private class".
- Your education is extremely vast and you keep on studying.
- Yes, I love studying. It calms me down. And writing is for me a sort of secret garden. Borges used to say that I am as the hurricane centre : calm and silent while everything is whirling in the whereabouts.
- He liked this about you... what else ?
- My playful outlook at life, that he had only known through his English grandmother, though I believe that he was playful. But... after his death, I remained as isolated in a silence centre, and I felt myself aimed at. Because, though Borges’ love guarded me, what this love stirred in others, left me shelterless. I was harassed, pursued, attacked, though not by everyone ; I suffered, but thanks to those horrors I found a balance axle in myself. Then I understood Dante’s mystic words, when in Paradise, referring to God, he says : " The Love moving sun and stars".
- Yours a sublime love... but the daily living ? A mystery for many ... where did you live together ?
- At my home, and we breakfasted in some bar, in the scent of coffee and oranges. I never prepared it, I know not how to, nor did I care to learn.
- And when did you find out that he was "your" man ?
- I found out... on a plane, where something special happened that made me feel "that" but I said nothing to him. Well, please, don’t ask me about this : it is mine.
- Telling it makes you more human.
- Look here...It happened to us as in the story of the eldest of two sisters in the film Sense & Sensitivity : everything at first so Victorian, as the initial struggle between Borges and myself.
- And as in the film, was there later a passionate explosion ?
- Ah, no !... I’m not speaking about the passionate explosion : it’s my autobiography... please understand.
- Did complicity between you carry him to share you his texts ?
- Yes, he was very personal, and would say, for instance : "Look here, María, lets change this word". And then : "Or would you rather the other one ?" Should I say "the other one" or "this one", he would ask : "Why ?". I would forward my reasons and he would answer "Well, I shall think it over". At times he agreed, others he would say "You are right, but I’d rather this one". We were very free.
- He, both emotional and rational at a time...what about this dichotomy ?
- This is, precisely, the entire strength of his life and writing. With only emotion he would not have achieved such a precise writing.
- Did you both enjoy Thomas De Quincey, Emily Dickinson ?
- And Kipling... "The Ballad of East and West". And John Donne, who manages rhythm and music in each verse.
- "Music" you say,... such as you feel in the desert, according to what you told me on another occasion ?
- Yes, the sound of far away notes, or the sand’s, when some tiny animal stirs it on its stride. Or the seas’, so strong, that all of a sudden it seems to bestow life ; at times rough and strong ; it also has the scent of an animal, and as well, music.
- Music that seems to meet heaven and earth.
- Yes ! And can disable the most negative passions. I remember Bergman’s Silence, in which two sisters - in an hotel - love each other, hate each other and shout at each other. The don’t even notice the music on the radio. But the steward enters and, moved, says : "It’s John Sebastian Bach". At that the moment those twitched faces go softening and the story changes.. And it’s as if one understood the tale of Orpheus .! This is the Infinite.
- Relating to this, in spite of Borges’ supposed agnosticism, his works are a call to the Infinite, and when one convokes the Infinite, one convokes God. And on his death’s eve you prayed together the Our Father in Anglo Saxon - an order of his English Godmother, though it be.
- It is not a question of belief or non believe... He was an agnostic. But his mother had also begged him the Our Father. Before he died I told him there were subjects on which I could not speak, since I had no religious formation, but I asked if he would like a priest, so as to talk things over with him. Borges then said : "What you mean is : do I need a priest ?" I answered : "No... only if you want to talk with him on those items I cannot". It was then that he said : "OK let it be a protestant and a catholic one, so I cant talk with both..." This is the reason why, when he died, there was an ecumenical celebration, with a catholic and a protestant priest.
- What was the very last he said to you before dying ?
- During the days before dying, he’d tell me about the toffee sweets his grandmother used to buy him, we’d dialogue literature and study Arab. And the very last...well.. he talked about us two, but I shall never say what : this is mine.
- In a recent article John Berger speaks about his tombstone in Geneva. Why did he go to Switzerland to die ?
- Because he admired that country, from where he only moved to Buenos Aires when he was twenty ; and - according to what he told me - at first he used to slander his so much beloved country, to be able to detach himself, because he knew he would have to live in Argentina. But later he no longer felt this need because he had managed an open horizon.
- Whose idea was the basrelief on his tomb ?
- I don’t know... We probably both thought of it. It’s the description of a medieval poem, The Moldon Battle, and it precisely begins with "let them not fear a thing". The first book Borges made me a present of was on Anglo Saxon literature, and the cover had these words, this fragment.
- Quoting Berger, Borges went to die to a ward near the Rhone, where the narrow streets seem passages winding between immense bookshelves, as a sort of a book store.
- Yes, and specially he chose it because it a sort of a legacy of his to mankind.
- What gifts do people leave at the "Cimitere des Rois" where he is buried ?
- Flowers, candles or at times a letter, saying they have read his works.
- "I now pronounce his name, María Kodama / How many mornings, how many seas, how many Oriental and Occidental gardens, how much Virgil" he wrote you. María, I now ask you : how many mornings, seas, gardens, now, without him ?
- All seas, all gardens. All Virgil. All my life in him. For ever and ever... and a day.

Published in "Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos" - Madrid, September /October 2004
© Cristina Castello
Translation : Patricio Doyle

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