I no longer remember the moment this story begins for me. I know that it was 25 August 1987, at roughly six in the evening, in Calle Argentina in Medellín. But I can’t clearly remember now the moment I put my hand into a dead man’s pocket and found a poem. In this case I have the good fortune to have recorded the moment in my diary, even though at the time I never expected to forget finding a poem in my dead father’s pocket. I no longer remember that moment, but I have the evidence – in fact, various pieces of evidence – that it happened. So that instant is rescued from being buried in my memory.
I don’t have a clear memory of what happened as the daylight faded on 25 August 1987. The memory is confused and spattered with shouts and tears. So I’ll copy out the record from my diary, written when the event was still fresh. It’s a very brief note:
‘We found him in a puddle of blood. I kissed him and he was not yet cold. But still, so still. Anger almost stopped my tears from falling. Sadness held back my anger. My mother took his wedding ring from his finger. I searched his pockets and found a poem.’
That’s as far as the diary goes, in the entry for 4 October 1987. The pages that follow contain a few scattered references to the verses of the poem, but I didn’t transcribe the complete poem in my diary. I did publish it later, on 29 November 1987, in the Magazín Dominical in El Espectador. There, I state for the first time that the poem is by Jorge Luis Borges.
Where did I get the idea that the poem was by Borges? I’m not quite sure. Most likely, the handwritten poem came with his name, or at least his initials, attached. As for the sheet itself, personally handwritten by my father, it’s lost. You might object that this is impossible: no one could lose or throw away such an intimate document, such an important note. But I am disorganised, forgetful, sometimes lazy. What’s more, I left Colombia on Christmas Day 1987, without even stopping at my house to pack a suitcase. I left everything behind in the hands of a family driven mad by grief and fear. At some point the paper went missing, or someone threw it away without thinking. In any case, apart from the publication in the Magazín, I have one more piece of evidence that this happened to me, and that I’m not inventing it like a forgotten dream, or one more of memory’s betrayals.
It is evidence carved in stone. I am referring to the headstone that we placed in the Campos de Paz cemetery, over my father’s grave. Here, the poem can still be seen (or at least discerned; even words chiselled in stone are gradually erased, just like life or dreams).
On the headstone, the poem is signed with the letters J.L.B. – Borges’s initials. Along with my diary, along with the Magazín and the marble, the poem is also now imprinted in my memory. I hope to remember it until my neurons fall apart in old age or death. It reads:
Ya somos el olvido que seremos.
El polvo elemental que nos ignora
y que fue el rojo Adán y que es ahora
todos los hombres, y que no veremos.
Ya somos en la tumba las dos fechas
del principio y el término. La caja,
la obscena corrupción y la mortaja,
los ritos de la muerte, y las endechas.
No soy el insensato que se aferra
al mágico sonido de su nombre.
Pienso con esperanza en aquel hombre
que no sabrá que fui sobre la tierra.
Bajo el indiferente azul del cielo
esta meditación es un consuelo.
Already we are the oblivion that we shall be.
The elemental dust that does not know us
And that was red Adam and that now is
All men, and that we shall not ever see.
Already we are upon the grave both dates:
The beginning and the end. Obscene decay,
The casket and the shroud, the threnody,
The funeral oration and death’s rites.
I am not the fool who clings on hard
To the magic sound of his own name.
I think with hope of my forgotten fame,
Of those who will not know I lived on earth.
Here beneath the sky’s indifferent blue,
It calms my mind to think that this is true.
No one paid attention to this English sonnet. Not even me – until I published a book at the end of 2006, El olvido que seremos (Oblivion: A Memoir), whose title is taken from the first verse of the poem. In the book, I write that the poem is by Borges.
As the book was widely read in Colombia, and as success always brings suspicion, the experts and the sceptics came out to claim that the poem was apocryphal, and not by Borges. They also said that I attributed the poem to Borges to sell more books, by putting my own diminutive name next to that of a giant. I already knew – I’d always known – that the sonnet didn’t appear in any of the poetry books or collections – neither the Obras completas, nor the Obra dispersa, nor the Obra poética – of the Argentinian writer. This seemed strange to me, but not of great concern. I didn’t doubt the attribution to Borges, but nor did the problem of the poem’s authorship concern me much. The sonnet was beautiful, the sonnet was important to me, and that was enough.
For many years, the main focus of both mystery and anger was in trying to find out who had killed my father. It mattered very little to me to verify the author of the poem. The note stated that it was by Borges, and I believed that, or at least I wanted to believe it. Naturally, given the situation, I was more intrigued by malevolence than by poetry; less by the enigma of beauty than by the enigma of evil. Next to the atrocity of death, that little aesthetic act, a sonnet, seemed of little importance.
But other people’s doubts, and other people’s slanders, ended up obsessing me as well. When I published El olvido que seremos I was living in Berlin. It was winter, and the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) had given me a Stipendium, a grant for writing. I had a lot of time. I got it into my head that I had to find out who really wrote that poem. If inept Colombian justice had been unable to find and sentence my father’s assassins, I, at least, had to be capable of finding the author of the sonnet.
The first clue was given to me by a peculiar Colombian poet by the name of Harold Alvarado Tenorio. Why did I call him? Because at that moment, January 2007, the only mention of this poem that existed online in Spanish (apart from the allusions in my book) was in an article by Tenorio in the second edition of the magazine Número, from October 1993. The text has the title, ‘Five Unpublished Borges Poems by Harold Alvarado Tenorio’. There, he tells the story of how five sonnets by Borges had reached his hands in New York on 16 December 1983.
According to Harold, three people were present for the miracle: the Venezuelan poet Gabriel Jiménez Emán, a very beautiful Argentinian medical student, María Panero, and Tenorio himself. Tenorio tells how Borges, head over heels in love with María Panero, dictated the sonnets to her, the first ones in a bar between 40th and 57th Street, and the last in a taxi en route to an apartment where Professor Emir Rodríguez Monegal was waiting for them, to take Borges and María Kodama to the Center for Inter-American Relations, where Borges was due to deliver a lecture that night.
Harold would have photocopied the sonnets handed to María Panero – but that same night, after drinking himself to delirium, he had to be admitted to hospital. On leaving hospital, he went to Madrid where he lodged in the home of the couple Carlos Jiménez and Sara Rosenberg. He left the poems there, forgotten between the pages of a book, until 1992, when he returned to Madrid, recovered them, read them for the first time (so says his text) and prepared his article. Which is why, according to the poet, he had only just published them in 1993, in the magazine Número, ten years after Borges had dictated them to María Panero.
The last thing Tenorio does in his article is to transcribe five sonnets, all of them untitled, the third among them almost the same as the one that my father carried in his pocket, although with some changes that impair the end result, both the meaning and, worse still in a sonnet, the metre – one line is no longer in pentameter.
When I pointed out these incongruities, Harold responded to my formal objections that anyone with any sense could see that his version was better than the one from my father’s pocket. To my temporal objection, he replied with a Borgesian paradox: ‘So your father was carrying the poem six years before I wrote it.’ I could have left things there, with that explanation from Harold, but as I already said: it was winter, I had a lot of time, the poem was important to me; and nobody likes being lied to.
In every fairy tale, as you know, there’s a magic object, a helper and an antagonist. There are also benign spirits that help you, and malignant spirits that try to lead you away from the straight path. First of all, a fairy godmother appeared. She doesn’t want her name mentioned, but I’ll call her Bea Pina, and say that she lives in the centre of Finland, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by snow and mist. An epidemiologist and expert researcher into strange phenomena, she told me she wanted to give me a hand. The first thing I asked was for her help in identifying and getting in touch with the people that Tenorio mentioned in his story. Many are now dead; Bea Pina, who has the gifts of a spy, located some of the others.
Thanks to Bea, I was able to find Sara Rosenberg and talk to her. Rosenberg is an Argentinian novelist and screenwriter who lives in Madrid. I called her on the phone number that Bea obtained for me and told her the story. She told me she’d never noticed Harold leaving any poems in her house, nor him finding and recovering them years later. What’s more, she warned me that Tenorio was a pathological liar.
I then spoke to the Venezuelan poet Gabriel Jiménez Emán. In an email, he confirmed what Tenorio had told me and declared to various Colombian newspapers: that Tenorio himself had written the poems. Moreover, Jiménez claimed to remember the moment in which Harold had written that sonnet for María Panero, in his own house, sick with love. I didn’t ask him why he had written a sonnet about death and oblivion for a girl he was in love with. Bea Pina, who has a lie detector in her head, told me that Jiménez was inventing as much as Tenorio, and that both suffered from a kind of ‘confabulation’, a psychiatric term to define the appearance of memories of experiences that have never taken place in reality. Some may say that I suffer from the same, and it’s possible – but not in this case.
At the same time, I wrote to some of those who consider themselves the greatest Borges experts on the planet, starting with those who had wide bibliographic knowledge of his works. The first was a professor, Daniel Balderston, who directed a centre of Borges studies at the University of Iowa. I asked him for a ruling, just as I might have sought an authorised opinion on cancer from an internationally famous oncologist.
His reply was friendly, and his position unequivocal: ‘I compared the versions you cite with the one that we published in Variaciones Borges #22. The most plausible scenario is that Harold wrote the sonnets before 1987 and that they were somehow circulated.’
I replied, admitting at least for the moment that he was right: ‘Yes, Professor Balderston, I believe that if we apply Ockham’s Razor, and do not uselessly multiply hypotheses, the most economical one leads to Harold Alvarado Tenorio. One can always be content with the most obvious hypotheses (if Harold says the poem is his, the poem is Harold’s). But even mathematicians say that often the happiest paths to solve a problem are not the easiest, most intuitive and most direct, but the most aesthetically pleasing and beautiful.’
I then wrote to Nicolás Helft, who has published the most extensive and complete bibliography of the works of Jorge Luis Borges. I held out hope that a record of the poem would appear somewhere in his memory or among his papers. I told him my story in a long email, and his reply, like Balderston’s, was categorical: ‘The poem is not by Borges, clearly. The genre is very popular – apocryphal poems, very well done but with defects: a lot of textual repetition from earlier poems, too much local colour, Borgesian adjectives all over the place.’ Although he didn’t say it was by Tenorio, for Helft it was evident that the sonnet was apocryphal. His letter finished with a small gesture of humility: he said he could be wrong; with Borges you never really knew, and he had made mistakes in identifying his work before. I wrote to another prestigious professor, the Peruvian Julio Ortega, who has spent years teaching Latin American literature in the United States. This was his verdict:
A beautiful and touching story. Sadly, they are not by Borges. And I say this without having read them completely, only reading some verses: ‘that high river gnaws the stars’; or this expression to allude to the fatigue of history: ‘Attila’s armies weigh me down’, or the charming reference to the Song of Songs as ‘the flower that blooms in the desert of atrocious Scripture’. I have copied these lines from your note to explain to you that Borges would not have written ‘gnaws the stars’. It’s a poor imitation. ‘Attila’s armies weigh me down’ is equally parodic; it’s too much weight for a poem. Finally, Borges would never have called Scripture atrocious.
It seems to me that this belongs to Tenorio’s dramatic style . . . I must say, however, that the first line of the sonnet that most interests you, ‘Already we are the oblivion that we shall be’, sounds closer to Borges. It has a good rhythmic pentameter, although I doubt that he would have started with a conclusion; it would have been more his style to start: ‘If we are the oblivion that we shall be . . .’, and to follow with a proposal rhetorically unfolded in baroque counterpoint. Aside from all that, the story of your father with a poem in his pocket is tremendous. And even better if the poem is by nobody and by everybody. In that sense, the first line expresses everything fully. Warm regards, Julio.’
Most of Julio Ortega’s comments referred to the other sonnets that Tenorio had published in his story of the event in New York. I ventured to make a small observation to Professor Ortega: that I, on the other hand, believed that the only poet to whom it would have occurred to call Scripture ‘atrocious’, was Borges himself.
William Ospina, roused by the controversy unleashed in Colombia by an article I wrote on the subject, wrote a brief essay in the magazine Cromos, describing how the poems had reached Número, and his obligation to believe Harold now that he said that the poems were his:
I venture the hypothesis that the poems are by Borges even though Harold Alvarado wrote them . . . As the poem about chess says, we do not know ‘what God behind God begins to weave the story’. Besides, did Plato not say that he who writes a poem is an amanuensis, that another is dictating it from the shadows?
Many people had advised me to go directly to María Kodama, Borges’ widow, to obtain an authorised and definitive opinion on the sonnets. I wrote to Alberto Díaz, one of Borges’ publishers and a personal friend of María Kodama. Díaz’s reply took several weeks to arrive:
Dear Héctor: First of all, many apologies for the delay in replying to you, which was not due to lack of interest on my part, but to the fact that María Kodama was out of the country all this time. I met her today, I told her your story and I handed her the article that you published on this subject in Semana. She gave it a quick look and told me that the sonnet your father was carrying on the day of his murder was apocryphal, like the rest of the sonnets that circulate on the internet wrapped up in a New York story. She notified me that she plans to persuade some newspaper to write a report specifically about the apocryphal poems, in order to draw a line definitively under this question. María Kodama dixit. I would have liked her reply to be different, but it was that. That is all. Warm wishes, Alberto Díaz.
‘María Kodama dixit.’ That phrase was like the final hammer of a judge upon delivering his verdict, like the Pope’s last word in a question of doctrine. But not just her: Balderston, Helft, Ortega, Ospina – they all gave the same ruling. The sonnet in the pocket, and the other four published by Tenorio as dictated by Borges, were not by Borges, but by the Tenorio, just as he had repeated several times.
If I still didn’t admit defeat, it was simply because of an inconsistency in the dates, which Tenorio attributed to his forgetfulness; and because it seemed absurd to me that the version by the person who claimed to have written the sonnet should be defective, and worse than the version that my father carried in his pocket. Or perhaps I still didn’t want to let go of a faith I had held for many years: that Borges was the creator of the poem.
The only person on my side, somewhat blindly in that almost religious conviction that the sonnet was by Borges, was Bea Pina. Tired of fruitlessly searching for information in Spanish, in English libraries and online, Bea was now concentrating on other languages and had made a discovery in Portuguese.
It had to do with a sonnet called ‘Aqui. Hoje.’ published on two independent blogs, which closely resembled the poem in my father’s pocket. In both, the translation was attributed to one Charles Kiefer, who had published the sonnet in its Portuguese version in a book called Museu de coisas insignificantes (1994). That same day Bea showed her great gifts as a researcher by finding out who this Charles Kiefer was (‘Brazilian writer and translator, who moreover wrote his doctoral thesis on Borges’), and somehow found his personal email address. I immediately wrote to Kiefer, and a few hours later I received the following response, in heavily Portuguese-inflected Spanish:
In 1987 I lived in Iowa City, USA, on the International Writing Program, then directed by the North American poet Paul Engels. In the IWP I met a Spanish poet called Luis Javier Moreno, whom I have never seen since. Luis gave me a photocopy of a literary supplement from Spain that had published the five Borges poems. (I have a living room with a lot of documents. I’m going to try to find it, in order to tell you for sure where and when it was published.) After coming back from Brazil, I tried to translate the poems. I study Borges, and I’ve already written two books about him. From what I know of Borges’ style, I can assure you that the poems are by Borges. But I have also never seen them in a book. Yes, I believe it is in fact a parody of Borges made by Borges himself, that magician of literary invention.
The Brazilian discovery began to revive both my bewilderment and my hope. A Spanish supplement that I did not know; ‘Aqui. Hoje.’ or ‘Here. Today.’ There was something strange and eloquent in that title. ‘Here. Today.’ The absolute present, the situation I am in both in geography and in time, negating past and future as well as memory and prophecy. Here, today, the continuous present, the negation of oblivion, hic et nunc. Those two words separated by a full stop also activated a glimmer of light far distant in my fragile memory. I seemed to be reading them not for the first time.
Bea Pina tried for weeks to get in touch with the Spanish poet Luis Javier Moreno, but eventually, we learned that he was rather withdrawn from the world, had no email and didn’t want to receive phone calls from strangers. In any case, the editorial team of a Spanish magazine passed Bea Pina’s questions on to him, but the poet Moreno didn’t remember Charles Kiefer, still less having given him some unpublished Borges poems. Memory is like that: what one person remembers, another forgets; what is important for one lacks any importance for another and he erases it for good, even going so far as to deny that it happened. Nor could Kiefer find the Spanish literary supplement anywhere. Experiences get forgotten, things get lost. I was so disconsolate that I even wrote to Bea asking her not to help me so much, as I felt I was wasting her time: ‘You’ve already done much more for me in this quest than anyone could have hoped. You’ve done more than you should. Rest. I’m beginning to think that the sonnet is neither by Borges nor by Tenorio, but by a third person, a good parodist. Maybe we’ll find him one day.’
In the middle of this desert, another ally appeared out of nowhere. With a group of friends, I have a small second-hand bookshop, Palinuro, in the centre of Medellín. One afternoon a lady, Tita Botero, arrived at Palinuro, saying: ‘The poem that your father was carrying in his pocket when he was killed – I know where he copied it from.’ She produced an old press cutting, yellowed after her husband had left it to hibernate for almost twenty years in a book by Borges. It was a page of the magazine Semana, from 26 May 1987, and it consisted of an introductory note, a photo of Borges in the centre, and below, two sonnets. The note introducing the sonnets read:
A ‘booklet’ has just appeared in Argentina, handmade, in 300 copies for distribution among friends. The notebook – to call it what it is – was published by Ediciones Anónimas (Anonymous Publications) and it contains five poems by Jorge Luis Borges, all unpublished, and possibly the last that he wrote in his life. When Borges died a year ago, his final book, Los conjurados, had been published. Now, almost a year after his death, this notebook has been published by a group of students in Mendoza, Argentina, who are respectful and scrupulous enough to insist on telling the truth. We reproduce here two of those five last poems by Borges.
In any case, the second sonnet published was the one that my father carried in his pocket (the good version, not Tenorio’s incorrect one), and it was almost certainly from this magazine, to which he was subscribed, that he had copied it. What’s more, the title was the same as the one it had in the Brazilian publications found by Bea Pina: ‘Here. Today.’
For more than ten years my father had presented a weekly radio programme in which he discussed current affairs. At the end of the programme in the week after the sonnet’s publication in the magazine, my father had read both of the poems on air. A journalism student in Medellín, Luza Ruiz, sent me the recording.
It was almost twenty years since I had heard my father’s voice. From one moment to the next, through the magic of recording and the internet, on a rainy spring afternoon in Berlin, I received, as if from beyond the tomb, my father’s voice reciting that sonnet that a few weeks later he would write out by hand and put in his pocket. There’s a fragment of a sonnet by Borges about his own father that I must quote at this point: ‘The rainy/ afternoon brings the voice, the cherished voice/ of my father who returns and who has not died’. Many times Borges yearned for the miracle of hearing once more, if only for an instant, his father’s voice. To recover that voice, according to him, would have been the highest negation of oblivion.
Another Borges poem, the sonnet in the pocket, had conferred on me the miracle of hearing again, clearly, my father’s forgotten voice. If you’re curious to hear the timbre of that resuscitated voice reading the poem, you can find it on the internet here.
With this new information I wrote once again to Tenorio, and told him I knew for certain where my father had copied the sonnet from. I asked him if he himself could have delivered these sonnets, supposedly written by him, twenty years before, to the magazine Semana. I mentioned what it said there about the students from Mendoza. He replied with the following, in an email:
To save you going to any more trouble, the person that introduced me to the first versions of those sonnets was the person that invented them, Jaime Correas, who was then twenty-five years old, and made them in Mendoza, as they say in Semana, in a home-made book with cardboard covers, typewritten, photocopied and ringed with plastic. Write to him and ask him to tell you the rest. I won’t reveal any more secrets, because Correas has never wanted to admit that he intervened in this. Only us hard-core Borgesians know the real story.
I didn’t know who Jaime Correas was, but once again, Tenorio was releasing a shard of fact mixed with fragments of lies. Thanks to Bea’s research, I learned that the student from Mendoza from twenty years ago was now the director of the journal UNO in the same city. It was almost summer in Berlin, and almost winter in Argentina. I called Jaime Correas on the phone.
Jaime had no idea who I was, and I had no idea who he was. I started by imploring him to believe that I wasn’t insane, and then briefly recounted the story of the poem in the pocket. Finally, I asked him if he had written the poems, as Tenorio said, and who had published them and where. Jaime told me that no, he had not written them, that the circumstances of their publication were an old, long and complex story, but that, if I had a little patience, he would tell it to me. And that I should expect an email from him.
Jaime had me on tenterhooks for days that in my memory are like months. At last, his reply reached me in Berlin when, by my watch, the 23rd of August of 2007 was turning into the 24th. Coincidences in this life are never perfect, but when they’re almost perfect, they seem so. 24 August isn’t exactly the date of my father’s murder; it’s one day before. But 24 August is the date of Borges’ birth, and also of the birth of my son Simón. It’s an imperfect coincidence, I know, which was a few minutes away from being perfect, but it’s a lovely one all the same.
‘The sonnets were handed by Borges to Franca Beer, an Italian who lived in Mendoza. She is married to a great Argentinian painter, Guillermo Roux. They both, together with the French poet Jean-Dominique Rey, went to visit Borges. Roux made some sketches of him while the Frenchman interviewed him. At the end of the interview, Rey asked Borges for some unpublished poems. Borges told him he would give them to him the following day. Franca returned alone the next day. Borges told her to open a drawer and take the poems that were there. She took them, made copies and later gave them to Rey. There were six. This detail is important, because six poems reached the group of Mendozan students. Franca knows an adorable person here called Coco Romairone, who is rather old now but still alive. He got them to one of my classmates. I studied them, and confirmed that one of them was published in La Cifra, at which point the other five remained, which are the ones we published. But there’s more; Rey translated them into French and published them with the sketches by Roux in France in his magazine. Franca says they made arrangements following Borges’ death to create an edition with the sketches and the poems in both languages, but they never received a reply from Kodama.’
In his student days, Jaime used to publish small books of poetry with some friends in Mendoza. They’d picked up an avant-garde notion from who knows where that literature should not have an author: it should be anonymous. That was why their little photocopied publications were called Ediciones Anónimos. All the leaflets they published had been made like that, without name, without signature, without authors. With Borges, they betrayed their principle and published the five poems with the name of the author on the cover. At the end of the prologue, the approximate date of publication appears: ‘Mendoza, 13 September 1986’. Borges had died three months earlier, on 14 June of that same year. Despite his name on the cover of that simple edition, it was perhaps destiny that those poems should continue to be seen as anonymous, as apocryphal, almost as false, even though they were not. This was a desire that Borges himself had expressed many times. To be the author of something was a chance, not a merit. The spirit blows where it will, into the ear of a genius or an imbecile.
From a cosmic point of view, literature is an abstract and collective phenomenon in which the authorship of an artistic work is not the most important thing about it, indeed it’s a dispensable, almost casual detail. After all, for millennia, works of art weren’t attributed to specific authors. Nevertheless, our era has given us the superstition of believing that the author is important: we tend to confuse author with authority and name with renown. That’s just how we are today. An anonymous painting from the Renaissance, however good it is, would acquire more value and prestige if it could be demonstrated that it’s by Rafael. In the same way, an unsigned poem would attract much more attention if its authorship could be definitively attributed to a poet considered great by most people, the most refined readers and the most expert literary critics. Whether we like it or not, famous names do have a magic sound, in other words, the power of enchantment. And if we believe in the romantic idea of genius, a great poem cannot occur to just anyone. The basic assumption of my search, in any case, is that it matters to know whether or not the sonnet is by Borges. I can and do accept that this quest may have no cosmic or philosophical importance.
A few months after that email, one that clarified so many things for me, I boarded a bus at daybreak, in the centre of Santiago de Chile, intending to cross the Andes and arrive in Mendoza at nightfall. I wanted to meet Jaime Correas in person, I wanted to hold in my hand a copy of that very rare little book, handmade, with the five unpublished Borges poems. After so many doubts and detours I had grown mistrustful. I would only completely believe this story of five poems passed around from hand to hand when, like Saint Thomas, I could touch my fingers to the wound; when, face to face with all the protagonists, they confirmed the things that Jaime had written in his letter.
With my bad memory, it’s useless for me to write a summary of that trip. I will hand over instead a few fragments of letters that I wrote then to Bea Pina. The first is from 8 January 2008:
I immediately liked Mendoza because it’s full of trees, the same trees as my beloved Turin: planes, with their chalky trunks, with their full crowns that give a shade for which one is thankful with every step. Jaime Correas called for me at the hotel. He’s a rather short, nervous and friendly man, who sometimes blushes deeply, from his cheekbones to his scalp. He’s a great oral storyteller, lively and sympathetic. He gave me the book without ceremony, and it was so well looked after that it seemed to have been made yesterday, as it was so well conserved, and the paper so clean. I began to suspect I was being deceived again, but it wasn’t so. We went to drink something at a café, I a white wine and he a fizzy drink. We talked, we reconstructed things. That first afternoon we didn’t get to the bottom of the question of the sonnet. We only discussed some details that still need to be clarified: about Juan López (the classmate who brought the poems to the group), about Coco Romairone, about Franca Beer, about the possible steps that the poems took from hand to hand until they arrived here in Mendoza.
The next day, Jaime was working and I went to see second-hand bookshops, my favourite activity in any country in the world. I told the owner of one bookshop that I was basically looking for books by Borges or about Borges. He took a lot of things out for me, a pile of books that weren’t in very good condition, but very interesting. Among the curiosities, he showed me a little notebook. He said: ‘this is very rare, it’s a pirated book, but the poems are authentic, by Borges’. It was the copy of Ediciones Anónimos, without the little plastic rings, and a different size, a little bigger than the one that Jaime had given me.
Jaime explained that the Borges notebook was Ediciones Anónimos’ only bestseller. As the first run of three hundred copies was sold out, they ran another of one hundred and fifty. I don’t know if this is the first or the second edition, but it’s not the same as mine, in any case, as the cover is slightly bigger. I didn’t hesitate for an instant to buy it: it’s your copy, and within a few weeks it should reach you in the cold of Finland. Now we all have one: Jaime, you and I.
I returned to Medellín and began to plan the final two meetings that were needed in order to confirm my certainty and fill in a few gaps. I had to meet the French poet Jean-Dominique Rey, and the couple Franca Beer and Guillermo Roux, to hear from their own mouths the same story that Jaime had told me – or at least one that resembled it. Maybe I should say ‘the variations of that same story’; because I’m more and more convinced that a memory is only reliable when it’s imperfect, and that an approximation to precarious human truth can only be constructed from the sum of imprecise memories and distinct forms of forgetfulness.
It wasn’t easy to find the French poet. But before finding him, I found his publications. Bea Pina, from her icy Finnish fastness, got hold of the most important thing: the first volume of his memoirs, entitled Mémoires des autres. I. Écrivains et rebelles. Each chapter of this book is dedicated to Rey’s memories of a certain writer: Valéry, Gide, Breton, Queneau, Cioran, among others. Chapter twenty is dedicated to his meetings with Borges.
There are photos in which we can see that while Rey and Borges talk, Roux is drawing a living portrait. This portrait, two faces of Borges one on top of the other, seems important to me because, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the last that was made of him from life rather than from photos. But the most interesting point for my story in this chapter of Jean-Dominique Rey’s memoirs is that at the end of the interview Rey asks Borges for some unpublished poems which he could publish, together with the conversation they had just had, in the magazine La Délirante. According to Rey, it is to him and not to Franca Beer that Borges gives the poems. Borges accepts the request, most of all because he likes the name of the magazine, and he even makes an etymological note, which Rey relates: ‘Delirium . . . delirium is planting outside the furrow’. It hardly needs saying, but I’ll say it: these poems were planted outside the furrow, and that’s why they have waited so long to germinate.
Borges leads Rey to his bedroom and they exchange comments on a blue ceramic tiger that Borges has there. Rey also notes an engraving by Dürer hung above Borges’ bed (Knight, Death and the Devil). Finally, the blind poet asks him to open a chest of drawers. There are some poems loose in a folder. Borges rejects some, because they are already published. Then he chooses six and they return to the living room.
Rey corrects some of the poems by hand, according to Borges’ suggestions, and then he needs to dash to the airport since his flight to Paris is that same day. In order to make this story compatible with Franca Beer’s account, as related to me by Jaime, the most likely explanation is that Rey had left behind the originals from the drawer, and took the fair copies which Borges would have asked him to make, and later she returned to collect these originals.
In any case, Rey doesn’t publish the poems in their complete form, either in his book or in the magazine, because, as he would later explain to me, he was never granted Kodama’s authorisation to publish them. In his memoirs he merely mentions certain lines. The key point for me on reading this chapter of his book is that he quotes the first line of the poem in the pocket.
The writer Rey related everything without artifice, even without excessive details, and with lapses of memory. Truth and memory are always peppered with lacunae or deformations that are not recognised as such. But despite my certainty, I wanted to see him, I wanted to hear from his own mouth the same story I’d just read in his book. So I started looking for him to request an interview.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in a café in Paris, awaiting his arrival. I didn’t expect to find out anything more than I already knew, but I wanted to talk to this man, I wanted to look him in the face, because there is something in faces that cannot lie, and we human beings are good lie detectors. I will recount my meeting with Rey just as I related it in an email to Bea Pina:
The meeting with Jean-Dominique Rey was at three in a famous café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Les Deux Magots, which used to be frequented by certain existentialists. Rey arrives at three on the dot, tall as a tree, dressed with a certain elegance, deliberate, serene. He is gaunt, with a great deal of almost white hair. I don’t know how old he is, but he looks nimble of mind and body, youthful. He’s wearing a heavy winter jacket and a scarf. We shake hands. He’s friendly but distant, discreet, even reticent, but not disagreeable. With that charming French reserve and discretion. Beneath his jacket is another, attractive yellow corduroy jacket, and beneath the scarf another scarf, or rather a cravat, that he doesn’t remove and that gives him an air of permanent archness.
We don’t really know where to start, like cars stalling on a very cold morning. I notice that he’s carrying a folder full of documents and books. I tell him I’ve read the chapter of his memoirs about Borges. We review a little of what each of us knows about the other. The motive for my obsession (I present him with a copy in Spanish, with dedication, of El olvido), his friendship with Roux and Franca Beer, the times he saw Borges throughout his life, the more or less close relationship with María Kodama. What he tells me is very similar to what he writes in his memoirs. As Borges himself said – and I suppose this is a neurological fact about memory – we remember things not as they happened, but as we related them in our most recent memory, in the way we most recently told them. The retelling substitutes for the memory and turns into a kind of forgetting. Nevertheless, there must be elements of memory that are precise. In any case, there are new details.
One seems important to me, a manuscript that he takes out of the folder. The writing, he explains, is his. It is the handwritten copy of one of the poems that Borges gave him. That’s to say, that he didn’t give him. This explains something. I believe that Borges did not give him the poems, but that rather Rey copied them by hand and read them aloud to Borges, and Borges made corrections on them as he did so. The typewritten copies, as far as I could understand, remained in Borges’ house, with handwritten corrections. It was Franca Beer who later collected these and photocopied them.
Rey drinks a hot chocolate and I a red wine, and Rey brings out the handwritten poem with the corrections dictated by Borges. In the poem that Rey shows me (México 564 or La Bibliothèque), corrected according to Borges’ directions, the adjective that accompanies the word ‘things’ changes: in the first version the poems said ‘the many things, the allegories’. Borges asks Rey to put: ‘The still things’. Finally, in the version that Franca Beer sends, and that is published in Mendoza, it ends up as ‘the firm things’. This story has been like those adjectives, first confusing and multiple, then becalmed, and now at last I feel that it’s firm.
After Jean-Dominique Rey, it only remained for me to interview Franca Beer and her husband, the painter Guillermo Roux. To get to their house, you have to traverse the whole of the Avenida del Libertador. The city never ends; the journey takes half an hour through a grid of interminable streets.
I am greeted there by a friendly secretary who offers me a coffee and shows me some of Roux’s canvases and sketches. There are paintings on all sides, and portraits. There is a cat sitting on the sofa, a real cat, and that same cat is painted on a canvas, above the sofa. I don’t know which of the two appears more indifferent to my presence and my visit.
Finally Franca Beer comes down, dressed in orange. She is a slender and agile woman, youthful in her way, with perfect grasp of her faculties, friendly without being ingratiating, with deep bags under her eyes that give her an air both warm and melancholic. When we begin to talk about those distant visits to Borges, I find that she confuses a little the first visit, from 1979, with the second, from 1985. I know this because of a detail: a cat and some curtains. Rey says in his Mémoires des autres that in the first visit, Borges emerged slowly from behind some heavy velvet curtains that separated the bedrooms from the living room in his house. Señora Beer tells me the same thing, speaking of the second visit: that Borges appeared from behind some curtains, after the maid had showed them into the living room.
She recalls that the maid had to move a white cat so that Borges could sit down on the sofa. In La Cifra, from 1981, Borges had written about his cat:
The chaste, white cat looks at himself
In the lucid moon of the mirror
And he cannot know that that whiteness
And those golden eyes, that he has never seen
In the house, are his own image.
Who will tell him that the other who observes him
Is merely the mirror’s dream?
A painting is not so very different from a mirror; we could say it is a mirror with memory. Many people who visited Borges in his house remember him stroking a white cat that purred on his lap, Beppo. And among ‘the just’, for him, was ‘one who strokes a sleeping animal’.
Franca’s memory of the way the poems were handed over is a little different from Rey’s. She says that Rey couldn’t take the poems, and that she had to return alone to Borges’ house to collect them. Borges showed her to his bedroom because, according to what he told her, he hadn’t had time to make the corrections in order for fair copies to be made. She told me:
‘It was a very simple bedroom, like a cell from a Franciscan monastery. At the foot of the bed there was a small piece of furniture with some little drawers, and I took the poems suggested by Borges from there. Borges asked me to read them to him. I began to read, and I read according to the meaning. He told me that I was reading them very badly; that I should mark the intonation of each verse, with a pause at the end. Finally, after making a few corrections, he handed me six typewritten poems, with a number of changes that he had me make. Before handing them to me he asked me to read them again.’
The writing of someone who can see is very different from the writing of a blind person. The blind man must create the verses in the closed box of his cranium, and memorise them until he has the help of someone prepared to write them from dictation. Before dictating, it’s important to polish the words in memory, choose them very well and repeat them so they don’t escape. It’s natural, then, that what Borges wrote after going completely blind should be short: it’s very difficult to memorise a novel, or the chapter of a novel, or even a long story. Correction came later, with the help of whoever was at hand.
In Franca’s recollection, the poems reached her hands, and a little later she sent them to Jean-Dominique Rey in Paris, but she also made one more copy, for her childhood friend, Coco Romairone, who lived in Mendoza. She knew how much he loved Borges and wanted to give him a present. Later, Coco would make a copy for Juan López, who in turn would give them to Jaime Correas, who would then . . . well, you already know.
Franca and I talk about her husband and the portrait of Borges that he made while Rey was interviewing him, in September 1985. We go to an adjacent house, where Roux has his studio and the archive of his works. After a lot of searching in an infinity of archives and drawers, he finds a yellow manila envelope, labelled in big writing: ‘Portrait of Borges – Original’.
We go back to the main house with the envelope in our hands. Meanwhile, Señor Roux has now come down and is also in the dining room. He’s big, bald and friendly and is wearing an eye-catching yellow jumper. Franca quickly brings him up to date with the story of the poem in the pocket. Señor Roux is interested, and vividly remembers the time that he accompanied Jean-Dominique to that interview, and remembers his sketch. We take the portrait out of the envelope. As Rey had told me that he himself kept the portrait by Roux, I question whether the paper in the envelope is an original, as the envelope claims.
Both Guillermo Roux and Franca are puzzled. They insist that this is the original. All the same, as it’s a pencil sketch, Señor Roux takes an eraser and tries to rub out a tiny detail. It doesn’t rub out. It’s clearly a copy, as both have to admit. So Guillermo Roux finds a pencil and sets to sketching, copying his own portrait, a new mirror image of Borges. He draws it easily, almost from memory. On finishing it, he takes the sheet in both hands, hands it to me and tells me: ‘Now it is an original. My gift to you.’
I went back to my hotel in Buenos Aires, a few blocks from Calle Maipú, relieved and certain, happy in a way. Borges’ poems, starting with the poem in the pocket, were also becoming his originals once again.
When Tenorio read an earlier version of this story, which I published in the newspaper where I work, El Espectador, he tried again to do everything he could to make himself appear the author of the poems. He wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper where he said that he himself had given them to my father, in front of witnesses who were all dead, ‘at the end of 1986, a Saturday morning’ . . . Later on, raving now in a way that was supposed to be funny, he wrote that the same assassin who killed my father put the poem in his pocket after firing. His new inventions and lies, malicious though they are, only make me smile. Because I believe there is now no doubt that the poem, the five poems, or the six, if you prefer, were written by Borges.
I want to end with a reflection: I am forgetful, distracted, sometimes lazy, but nevertheless, I can say that because I have tried not to forget my father something extraordinary has happened to me. That afternoon in Calle Argentina in Medellín his breast was shielded only by a fragile piece of paper, a poem, which did not prevent his death. But it is beautiful that a few letters stained by the last drops of his life should, without his intention, have rescued for the world a forgotten Borges sonnet about oblivion.