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  HOME | Arts & Entertainment

Letter by Dying Borges Explained Fondness for Geneva

By Mateo Sancho Cardiel

MADRID – Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges expressed in a letter sent to Spain’s Agencia Efe news agency and dated May 6, 1986, just weeks before his death, his “decision to be an invisible man” in Geneva, a city where he said he felt “mysteriously happy.”

The missive in Efe’s possession, which sheds more light on Borges’ attachment to the Swiss city where he chose to spend the final days of his life, takes on special importance amid a recent controversy sparked by Argentine ruling party lawmaker Maria Beatriz Lenz’s proposal that Borges’ remains be repatriated to Argentina.

Borges (1899-1986) studied in Geneva during his youth and returned there on numerous occasions. Now, 23 years after his death from liver cancer, a debate has resurfaced regarding his final resting place: should heed be paid to an individual’s wishes or should a country’s claim to one of its main cultural icons take preference?

“I’m a free man. I’ve decided to stay in Geneva because (my time there) corresponds to the happiest years of my life,” Borges said in the letter, sent to Efe’s then-president, Ricardo Utrilla, and published on May 21, 1986.

Borges died on June 14, 1986, about six weeks shy of what would have been his 87th birthday, and he was buried in Geneva’s Plainpalais cemetery, but Lenz has proposed that his remains be transferred to Buenos Aires’ ornate La Recoleta.

“My Buenos Aires continues to be that of the guitars, of the milongas (a form of music that preceded the tango), of the aljibes (cisterns), of the patios. None of that exists anymore. It’s a big city like so many others,” Borges said in the letter to Utrilla.

“In Geneva I feel strangely happy. That has nothing to do with the reverence for my ancestors and with my essential love for my homeland. I find it strange that no one understands and respects the decision of a man who has taken – like a certain character of (H.G.) Wells – the decision to be an invisible man,” he wrote.

The sentiments expressed in the letter differed what has been written by his biographer, Alejandro Vaccaro, or what Borges himself said years earlier in an interview in 1969 for a French documentary film regarding his desire to be buried in his native Buenos Aires.

The author of the short story collection “Ficciones” (Fictions) broke a months-long silence with his letter to Efe, which he said was an attempt to end the “harassment of journalists” who were stirring up controversy over his residence in Geneva and his marriage to his personal assistant, Maria Kodama.

“I’m sending you these lines so you publish them wherever you want. I’m doing this to put an end once and for all” to “the phone calls and the questions of which I’ve grown tired,” he wrote in the type-written, hand-signed letter to Utrilla.

Borges, traditionally critical of those in power in Argentina, found refuge in Switzerland from accusations that he was a traitor to his homeland, but even there he was harassed by the press, Paloma Caballero, Efe’s bureau chief in Geneva at that time, says.

According to the journalist, Borges’ relationship with Argentine journalists in that city was “a nightmare,” and that explains why the author turned to Efe, an agency with which he had “an excellent relationship” and for which he also had contributed articles.

“The reporters (from Argentina) – many of them considered yellow journalists – wouldn’t stop coming to the Swiss city and camped out at a downtown Geneva hotel – which no longer exists – where Borges always stayed,” Caballero said.

That situation got even worse after his death, with Kodama – now in her mid-60s – becoming the target of attention.

“She went out on the street terrified. They would follow her to the bank to see how much money she was withdrawing, since articles were being written about the late writer’s million-dollar bank accounts in Switzerland,” the journalist said.

She added that the reason at that time for wanting to transfer Borges’ remains to Argentina had less to do with “paying tribute to him as a great writer” than the question of the inheritance.

Family members, friends and former domestic employees were all seeking a piece of his estate, of which Kodama, according to Swiss law, was the sole beneficiary. In Argentina, that situation would have been different because their marriage, which took place in Paraguay just months before Borges’ death, was not recognized.

Finally, after analyzing the matter for several days, the Swiss government decided to inter Borges’ body in Geneva’s most prestigious cemetery, where – in a simple grave alongside renowned figures such as John Calvin and Jean Piaget – “I’m sure he is resting happily,” Caballero said. EFE

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