Sunday, September 14, 2008

Borges – a life, biography by Edwin Williamson

This is the biography of Jorge Luis Borges, the iconic writer of Argentina and one of the preeminent Latin American authors whose works have intrigued me. I had tried reading some of his fictions, essays and poems in the past but did not manage to reach the same wavelength of the author. But I found the lifestory of Borges more interesting than his fictions. I am now more fascinated with him and plan to reread his works.

Borges´s writings and life were influenced by three things; the sword , the dagger and the third one.. even more deadly.. women.

His mother Doña Leonor, a strong-willed woman had burdened him with the ¨sword of honour¨. She brainwashed him with the historic and heroic tales of the family ancestors who fought against the Argentine dictator Rosas in the beginning of the ninetieth century. He was under pressure to live upto the expectations of this noble and historical legacy or feel unworthy. His mother had interfered in his love life too. She would approve girl friends for him only those from the high society and wrecked his relationship with women from lesser class. Borges lived with his mother even untill his sixties.

The dagger was a contribution from his father, who kept advising the Bohemian, timid and shy young boy to be a ¨man¨ and take the dagger to stand upto those who challenged him. The father, who himself wanted to be a writer but never made it, also instilled this fear of failure in the son.

The women … inspired and frustrated him throughout his long life. His writings and life were influenced by the bloomings of love and the doomed affairs.. by his ¨anxiety to find love¨ and his eternal search for a Beatrice from the Divine Comedy of Dante. Nora Lange, Haydee Lange, Maria Esther Vasquez, Margot Guerrero, Ëstela Canto and finally Maria Kodama were some of the women who made his story. Norah Lange, the redhaired Scandinavian- origin beauty was the one who inspired his defining writings and tormented him the most. After initial interest in him, she chose to become the lover and later wife of Oliverio Girondo, his rival also in the literary movement of Argentina in that era. She went beyond Girondo when she published a book ¨45 days and 30 sailors¨. During the launching celebration in 1933, she was dressed like a mermaid surrounded by other writers including Girondo in sailor´s costumes. Borges, the pobrecito, never recovered from this.

Then there is Estela Cantes, who plays games with Borges. After several months of courting in the parks, streets and cinema halls, when Borges proposes timidly to her, she says ¨Jorgie, don’t forget that I am a disciple of Bernard Shaw. We cannot get married without first going to bed with each other.¨ Borges mother wrecks this relationship by banning the entry of Estela in her house.

Borges ends up with an Indian-style arranged marriage to Elsa Astete, chosen by his mother when was at the age of 68. But the marriage did not last and the couple separated in a few years.

Towards the end of his journey of frustrated love life, Maria Kodama, junior to him by several decades, fulfills his life by reciprocating love unconditionally. She rekindles love and romance and new creativity in him. She felt attracted to him when she was twelve years old as a student when he was in his fifties. While being fond of Borges, she valued her own independence and resisted being tied in marriage when Borges proposed. Eventually she relented and agreed to marry him at his ripe age of 87 and when she was 41. Maria Kodama, born to Japanese father and Argentine- German mother, gave to Borges fulfillment of love, which eluded him in his whole life.

The end of the life of Borges was like a typical Borgesian fiction. He left Buenos Aires in November 1985, somewhat secretly without telling anyone that he would never return. He settled down in Geneva and married Maria Kodama. Since Argentine law did not allow him to divorce his former wife, he got the marriage papers done in a Paraguay court. His marriage was on 26 April 1986 and he died within two months on 14 June 1986. He was buried in Geneva itself.

Borges ended his life outside Argentina, like the other Argentine iconic figures. Exile, asylum and sad ending seem to be part of the history of Argentine heroes. The liberator of Argentina and the founder and Father of nation San Martin ended his life as an exile in Europe. Che Guevara, the other icon of Argentina died in the jungles of Bolivia. Peron, who left Peronism as a heritage which continues to influence the politics of the country even now, spent two decades in exile in Europe. Even Evita´s corpse was on exile incognito in a cemetry in Milan for two decades. And Carlos Gardel, the Tango idol died away from the motherland in a plane crash in Colombia. Do I see too much of Borgesian coincidence here or am I influenced by the lyrics of Tango which are mostly about bitterness and betrayal; anguish and sadness.

Borges deserved Nobel prize but his political alignment and pronouncements came in the way. He hated Peronism, after the Peron administration humiliated him by transferring from his library assistantship to the post of Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits in the Public Markets of the Municipality. Blinded by his hatred of Peronism, he went overboard in supporting the Argentine military dictatorship which overthrew Peron and he also supported the Chilean military regime of Pinochet. This political indiscretion cost him dearly and deprived him of the Nobel prize..

Borges had a seminal influence on the up and coming Latin American writers of his era and inspired the movement of ¨Magical Realism¨which is a contribution of the region to world literature. Borges was an intellectual giant and was one of the most cosmopolitan personalities. He spoke and wrote in English fluently and had read a lot of Eurpean and American literature, although he never had any collegiate education.

Borges left behind a Borgesian genre of writing….inventive and intriguing, fabulous and fantastic, labyrinthine and puzzling, speculative and metaphysical, weird and witty… Some of his writings are like the pronouncement of wisdom by Indian sages.. never direct. The Argentine judges who denied a literary prize to him in 1941 called his work¨obscure and arbitrary cerebral game¨.

The author of the biography, Edwin Williamson (Spanish professor from Oxford) has done justice in this book( published in 2002) to the greatness of Borges with his vast knowledge of Latin American literature and his objective observations of the politics and society of Argentina during Borges´s life time.


Here is a line from Borges´s poem ¨El amenazado¨

..Being with you, or not with you, is the measure of my time..


Borges defied age and blindness. He got married for the first time at the age of 68. Later, he married Maria Kodama when he was 87. Borges became blind in his fifties and needed help for reading among other things. When he became the Director of Buenos Aires Public Library after his blindness, he wrote ¨I speak of God’s splendid irony in granting me at one time 800,000 books and darkness.” It is extraordinary that Borges not only overcame the handicap after losing his eyesight but in fact he flourished and bloomed with his writings, giving lectures, international travel and even fell in love !!

Did someone say Love is Blind….

1 comment:

Shalaidah said...

Well said.