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The Death of Borges

Toward the end of 1985 Borges had to undergo a series of medical examinations in Buenos Aires. He did not feel well; day by day the ground became less firm beneath his feet. This did not stop him from going to Geneva for the holidays—he wanted to spend them in the city of his adolescence. In mid-January he was taken to a hospital where, after suffering a hemorrhage, he had to submit to painful medical tests. I visited him there. We chatted, as if we were carrying on a dialogue from the night before, in bits and pieces. He talked of an old friend of Samuel Johnson who published a book under the title The Joys of Madness, and of Cocteau, whom he liked, at least partly, and he recited one of his poems to me. He told me that for some time the luminous fog that covered over his vision had turned violet, a color he detested. Then he described in detail the preface he had started to write—the night before, in the hospital—for the Pléiade edition of his work.

It was clear to me that his condition was grave. I remembered that he liked to cite the example of Socrates on his last day, when he refused to talk of death and went on discussing ideas with his friends, not wanting to make pathetic statements of farewell; he sent away his wife and children and nearly dismissed a friend who cried, because he wanted to talk in peace—simply talk, continue to think.

Borges would not express even the usual irritation at being in hospital. He made jokes about the food they gave him—soups and purées whose tastes were indefinable. “It could,” he said, “be made of silk, of marble, of an extract of clouds.” He was animated by this conversation, and Maria Kodama and I asked him if he would get up and walk with us in the corridor. Not without some fears, he accepted. At first trembling, he finished by holding himself straight and firm. He smiled, and in a voice that was weak but that became heavy and jarring and strong when he recited Anglo-Saxon or Icelandic texts, he chanted—one might say “intoned”—the last verse of the ballad of Maldon, just as we were leaving the corridor.

He released his beloved falcon into the forest
and entered the battle.

Two weeks later, he was back at his hotel. He could have returned to his house in Buenos Aires. He had reasons to do so; he feared what would happen to his old editions of Anglo-Saxon sagas. He decided to stay in Geneva, the city of his youth; he wanted to be near the lake. He worked to the end on a scenario for a film on Venice. He was glad to have visitors, always happy to talk to people capable of carrying on a dialogue with his vast memory and of contributing something unexpected to it.

One day he surprised me by asking me to bring him the works of Molière, the Poèmes barbares of Leconte de Lisle, and Michelet’s La Mer. And then a few days later, the entire work of Remy de Gourmont, whom, he told me a little later, he thought of as his elder brother. “It’s very unfair that he should be forgotten while I’m famous.” In the evening the nurse read to him from Voltaire: “The best French prose, perhaps the best prose ever written.”…

During the last months, he had two great wishes: first, to marry Maria Kodama, his student, his accomplice in the study of Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic literature, his fervent and attentive companion, his Antigone and his scribe—and he married her. Aside from this, he wanted to live in the old quarter of Geneva he had known when he was young, and the unfindable was found for him: an apartment on a very quiet place, where he could hear from time to time the sounds of nearby bells. As if he had the innocent power of great poets to transform reality and somehow make it resemble their own, the narrow little street on which the building stood had no name and no number at the door. There he felt at home, arrived, finally, at the center of the labyrinth. His happiness was so intense that the inextricable pattern that his steps, as he put it, had worn down (“fatigué“) for nearly eighty-seven years, now disappeared and, liberated, he could make his own way to the clouds.

When he was a student in Geneva, where the writer in him was born, a friend told him he must have some visiting cards. Borges’s idea of what should appear on them as his “profession” could not have been more modest: “Jorge Luis Borges, contemporain.” And now we have had the great luck to have been his contemporaries.

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