Oral History Item Type Metadata
There was a conference at Dickinson college, which was organized by Carlos Cortinez, who was a faculty member there at the time. He was from Chile. And he had organized another conference in Maine several years before, out of that first conference came a book called something like Simply a Man of Letters. And it was a book, an anthology of different articles on Borges. Anyway, the story is, in talking to me, he learned that I was interested in Borges' milonga poems. And he said, "nobody is doing anything on the milonga poems, do you want to give a paper at the conference?" And I said sure. So anyway, I went to the conference at Dickinson College [where I met Borges], and although I had met Borges before, in Argentina, and had talked with him at different occasions. What's interesting is that I was sorry that he wasn't coming to Oberlin. I'd never been asked, and I had sort of been added to the list kind of at the last minute.
And then, after the conference and after I got back, I got a call from Carlos Cortinez, who had organized the conference, and said one of the colleges that Borges was supposed to go to dropped out, do you think that Oberlin might be interested? So of course I said, “Absolutely!”
Now, this required pulling a lot of things together at the last minute. This was in May 4th and 5th, and of course we were nearing the end of classes – it was crazy, people are sort of finishing up, and since we had know nothing about this we didn't have a budget, I mean I didn't have any money. So I talked with the dean and the chair of Romance languages at the time was Nelson de Jesús. And he was very responsive and helped me get money from different sources, and so the bottom line was yes. But also the other thing that was true at the time was that all the spaces had been reserved for senior recitals, for this for that, so weren't any places on campus that we could hold it. And the question was, what do we do, where do we hold it? So we talked to First Church, and arranged to have everything there.
And what we decided to do was to hold the comparative literature conference at First Church in honor of Borges an d then have a dialogue the following day. And then [Esmeralda Martínez Tapia] of course was happy to host him at La Casa [Hispánica]. So everything just happened like “Boom!”
I went to the Cleveland Airport [to pick up Borges] and I had this old car. I mean old old car. It was falling apart. And in fact, the seats were sort of torn up, and I had this these plastic not covers, but seats because the actual car seats were just so sticky and awful [laughs] – but I’m telling you that for a reason. So anyway, I got to the airport, and it was during the time when you could go all the way up to the gate. And everybody got out of the plane - no Borges. And at the very end – clearly, you know, they had waited, because the flight attendant was helping him out - came Borges and María Kodama. I thought, “oh my gosh, here they are in Ohio!” One of the flight attendants I remember was one of the few, if not the only person who recognized him. And she was just – her eyes were wide open, and her jaw dropped and she looked at me as if to say, "is this really the person? is this in fact him?" So I said, "this is Jorge Luis Borges", you know, "I'd like you to meet him." And she was thrilled.
So anyway, we got out of the airport and went out, and got into my car. And Borges of course was blind, and he sat in front. And as he was getting into my very old car, he felt his way onto the chair and he said, "Oh my, I feel I'm getting into a bee's nest," he felt that it like was like getting into a beehive! He could be very sweet and very funny.
We drove back to my house, and at the time I lived on Cedar Street. Peter Takacs and Olga Markoff Belaeff (who at the time was teaching in the Russian department), were waiting, because all of this had happened so fast that I thought "Oh my gosh, well, you know, they're going to arrive, they're going to be tired." There weren't any real restaurants in Oberlin. The only restaurant that one took people to were either the Oberlin Inn, or Presti's. So I thought, that’s not good enough. We'll have dinner at my house. And I had asked Olga if she could prepare something. We got to my house, and I was reminded recently by Peter [Takacs], that it was a very cold evening and actually, we had made a fire. So, we sat in my living room and you know Borges commented on the fire and we just conversed and it was good fun. And then we sat around the table it was sort of interesting to watch him because of course he couldn't really cut his own food and so on, so María Kodama helped him out. But he did just fine and he was curious about all kinds of things in Oberlin. Peter played Brahms for him, and it was an old rickety piano, I'm afraid. But Borges listened and María Kodama was very impressed.
I remember at the time the one question I had for him – I mean I had asked him many things on other occasions - but the question I had was, there's a section to Dream Typers – which is "El Acedor" in Spanish – which is called "Museum." And under that section there's one little essay, it’s about the creation of a map. There’s place he describes where they create a map and they try to create it as faithfully as possible. And then they realize that it has to be a little bigger so that they can include this and that. And then it has to be a little bigger so that they can include a little more of this and that so that it can be as much of a a representation of the kingdom as possible. And it goes on, and on, and on, and of course the map gets so big that it's the size of the territory. Which, of course, then renders it completely useless. [laughs] That particular selection which I love is in this section called "Museum." So I wanted to know why he had titled that series of little essays "Museum." And he paused and thought and he said: "You pays your money, you makes your choice." And it seemed kind of odd to say that! And I thought, "hmm what does that mean?" and I guess basically what he meant to say is, if you write it you can call it anything you want.
On Borges' milongas and Geneva, Switzerland:
I desperately wanted these milongas translated because I was writing about them and I wanted students to have access to them, students who didn't read Spanish. So I asked David Young if he would do it. I would do a literal translation, and then he would do a poetic translation. We didn't want it to sound na-na na-na na-na, so we didn't do it very rhythmically and with regular rhyme. However, when I ran those by Borges, he says, no no no no no, milongas have a meter, and they have a rhyme, and they're popular song. And they should be translated like that. And if it means you sacrifice some of the content, the rhyme is more important. Which was very very revealing. And so David had to then work hard at coming up with good rhyme that didn't sound, silly. On occasion [David] would come up with something to give it a kind of poetic turn that wasn't quite accurate, culturally. So he might say something about the milonga that didn't resonate with the actual tradition. So I would correct those things. Or he might mention a place never having been there, and maybe use the wrong adjective. Once he did the first draft of the more poetic rendering, we polished it together. And we tried to be loyal to the tone of each milonga. Some were more playful and others were more [of an] homage to a particular hero.
The following summer [of 1984] was when I had gotten an NEH grant to- a summer grant to go and show [Borges] what we had done so far. We had not translated them all. And I was supposed to travel through Argentina to see him. And when I called María Kodama, to make arrangements for that, I learned that they were leaving for Geneva, Switzerland. I asked her if I could come to Geneva instead of going to Argentina to talk to Borges. She mentioned that he had been sick, but I didn't really have a sense of how sick. Also she mentioned that they were getting married, which was a surprise. Not for the obvious reasons that there was such a difference in age; although they were very close, my sense wasn't that they'd had a romantic relationship. But they were very close. I got to Geneva and that was in June, I learned that he was quite sick and that he had cancer.
I got there and I saw them, they were staying at a hotel. I was going to check into that hotel and María was very gracious she said, "why don't you just share a room with me?" So I shared a room with her and Borges was in an adjacent room, and I remember we spent a lot of time together. While I was there, María would see when it was convenient for me to see Borges, and - actually, that's when I did the interview of the milongas. He was quite ill, and actually during the days that I was there you could see a dramatic change in his health.
As the days passed, he became quite sick and I saw him till the very end. He was lying in bed and not well he wanted María to describe what the room looked like. And he wanted to know what one could see out the window. He wanted all the details possible. And he wanted to feel the wall. In a sense, María was his eyes. He would ask and she would describe what everything looked like. And how things were. And that was the last time I saw him. María was very strong, and of course she was in charge of everything, and dealing with the doctors. And at one point, she excused herself and I think she just really broke down. But she was very private and then came back out from the bathroom and she asked me something and I was so sorry to not have responded as I wish I had. She asked me, what would happen if I didn't go back right away? Because I had a flight ready and I had very young children and I needed to get back home. I think at the time I just wasn't smart enough to realize what she was asking, which was really that she was asking me to stay.
I left. My flight was leaving from Paris. I had taken a train from Geneva to Paris and then stayed at a hotel that night and then the next day I was leaving. And I woke up in the middle of the night – or very early in the morning – and I had this very clear vision of doctors taking Borges out on a stretcher…visions or dreams are kind of fuzzy. But people wearing white coats. And I sat up in bed and I thought to myself, "I wonder if he's died?" I took the flight home that night, and arrived at Kennedy Airport the next day, and when my parents went to pick me up, and they said, "did you hear that Borges died yesterday?" I was sorry I didn't stay. Not just to be there and to attend the funeral and so on, but mainly to support María Kodama.
By the time you know he came [to Oberlin in 1983], he couldn't see very much. He always would say that he would never use a white cane. He had a collection of canes that people had given him, which were very beautiful, but they were regular canes and he never used the cane to walk, He used the cane mainly for balance, for greater stability. And I think because he was old and he was blind, people would sometimes treat him like an old man, and there was nothing old man-ish about him. He was so sharp and so witty, and really very funny.
And he had a tremendous memory. He would often not remember something right away, and then he would sort of look up and throw his head back and it's as if he were going through his mental files and then he'd come up with a name. Or he would quote from all kinds of places. He had this aural memory where he could repeat things he had heard, as well as things he had read, but he had a real sense of orality. And he had all kinds of opinions about writers was not shy about giving them about – at least not with me! I certainly was not a close friend but um, I always had the sense that he had very comfortable and would just say things to me. Sometimes he would say outright some outrageous thing and María would say "Borges..." you don't say that!" [laughing] But he was fun. He was very fun. And I felt of course very privileged to have gotten to meet him and share time with him.