By Dean Nicholas
Though tango may be the national dance, slow waltzes with the deceased remain a worrying trend in Argentina. Decades after the remains of Eva Peron were unceremoniously shunted around the globe, a row has erupted once again over the final resting place of the country’s most famous writer, Jorge Luis Borges.
Upon his death in 1986, Borges was interred in Plainpalais cemetery in Geneva, the city in which he passed away and one he visited countless times throughout his life.
Despite residing there peacefully for some 22 years, two weeks ago lawmaker Maria Beatriz Lenz opened a storm of controversy by declaring her intention to request that the writer’s earthly remains be repatriated to Buenos Aires, where they could be laid to rest in his family’s plot in Recoleta Cemetery. Borges’ widow Maria Kodama, a woman who some consider the Yoko Ono of Latin American intellectualism, has long claimed that the writer wished to be buried in Geneva, something that Borges’ biographer Alejandro Vaccaro, who supported Lenz’s move, strongly disagrees with.
The latest twist in this macabre tale came with the publication last week of a long-lost letter that Borges wrote during the weeks before his death from liver cancer. In the letter, Borges speaks of his joy at being an “invisble man” in Geneva, a city in which he confesses to feeling “mysteriously happy”. The letter confirmed that Borges himself wished to be laid to rest there, and Lenz has subsequently shelved her proposed request, but Vaccaro, who is also the president of the Argentine Society of Writers, will persist with the debate.
The motivation for this new polemic is a curiously Argentine cocktail of prestige, pesos, and patriotism. Though Borges’ love for his adopted European resting place is well-known, it is in Buenos Aires that he is adored. The simple fact is that Buenos Aires loves Borges as much as the writer did his birthplace, and for many, the absence of his earthly remains, in a city which glories in monuments to the dearly departed, is a cause of anguish, even humiliation. How could Borges have preferred that effete, cold European capital? Surely Kodama must have somehow tricked him into being buried there? Vaccaro nearly makes such an accusation, claiming recently that he has secret evidence indicating Borges himself wished to be buried in Recoleta, though he offered nothing to back this claim up beyond an interview with the writer that dates from the 1960s.
The public spat between Vaccaro and Kodama has rumbled along for years, though the involvement now of Lenz gives the story added weight. Neither party looks particularly clean: Vaccaro has long shown himself to be something of a Borges obsessive, despite never meeting the man in person, and allegedly released a series of fake texts ascribed to Borges into the public realm during the 1990s. Kodama, meanwhile, has repeatedly been accused of mis-management of the Fundación Internacional Jorge Luis Borges, and has never quite escaped the stigma of being the writer’s personal assistant for many years before their marriage. She was forced to fight a legal challenge over his estate in the early 1990s, and has claimed in the past that the question of transferring his remains has more to do with inheritance than tribute.
The irony is that Borges elected to remain in Geneva precisely to avoid just the political and media circus seen in recent weeks. For that reason alone, the poor man should be left to rest in peace and seclusion.
Borges photo courtesy of Popular Persons.
*Dean Nicholas is a British-born journalist, and a contributing editor for Londonist, one of London’s most popular websites. He is currently based in Buenos Aires.