I’ve never been big on birthdays but turning 21 made me realise something: celebrating my birthday with something culture related is something that I could very much look forward to every year. On Monday 26 September 2016 I set out with a friend to Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum, where Maria Kodama, the widow of the genius Latin-American writer, Jorge Luis Borges was having a chat with professor László Scholz from ELTE. The event was organised by the Argentine Consulate on Budapest in the memory of Borges, who died 30 years ago. The following, however hectic and hasty, are my impressions.
The museum. It is in the very small, extremely crowded and lively Károlyi Mihály utca, just a three-minute walk away from ELTE’s central library. If you look at it from the outside, you might think that it’s a tiny place, but boy, are you wrong… The museum has a nice, green garden, very minimalistic. When you enter the building itself, you find yourself at the bottom of stairs, not seeing where they lead. It’s brightly lit with warm light, with decoration and design dating back at least two centuries. Now, I’ve only seen one room, it had those amazingly tall walls, with huge chandeliers. The lighting of the room is warm, which makes you feel at ease, almost at home. And here my impressions of the museum shall end.
The discussion was set to start at 5 PM, nevertheless, we’ve waited a good forty minutes, which if you ask me, was not the nicest thing to do. I understand that we’re talking about a very important person (Kodama) and also the Argentine consul, but the wait was just excruciating. We could not wait to hear all about Borges. The most important thing that I have to say right away is that the purpose of the whole talk was to introduce Borges as a person to us, not as an entity, not as a writer, that’s why Maria Kodama was there. She was his wife, after all.
Professor Scholz and Kodama’s dialogue was all in Spanish, with one lovely translator helping us out in Hungarian. The discussion had a friendly atmosphere, a tone which was set at the beginning, with the Argentine consul greeting us in the following way: “Hello, dear friends”. We immediately knew that we made the right choice going there.I truly believe that my friend and I were the only ones in the room who did not speak a word of Spanish. There were dozens of young people (students, very likely), who were native Spanish speakers, which is very nice: even if they are far from home, they could connect with their heritage here in Budapest. A lot of people were interested in Kodama and Borges as well, many questions were asked at the end of the conversation, again, mostly in Spanish. By the time we were finished there, I am convinced, I picked up a bit of Spanish.
I truly believe that my friend and I were the only ones in the room who did not speak a word of Spanish. There were dozens of young people (students, very likely), who were native Spanish speakers, which is very nice: even if they are far from home, they could connect with their heritage here in Budapest. A lot of people were interested in Kodama and Borges as well, many questions were asked at the end of the conversation, again, mostly in Spanish. By the time we were finished there, I am convinced, I picked up a bit of Spanish.
We learnt that Kodama was only a teenager when the pair met, and their relationship was not only based on love but friendship and business. They got married very late and abroad since Borges couldn’t divorce his previous wife (laws preventing it). There is a quite wide age gap between husband and wife, which gives room to speculation, mainly that Borges married her on the sole purpose of carrying on his legacy.
During the hour-long event we got to know Borges as the brave, unstoppable force: he did not back down from an air balloon trip, even though he lost his sight long before; Borges as the partial politician: during a phone-call, which not even Kodama knows what was about, he said that a man should avoid two things at all costs: to bribe someone and to be bribed; Borges as the man who does not follow conventions: when awarded with a prestigious award, he rarely showed up (on the one instance when he did, in Chile, he accidentally met the then-head-of-state, Pinochet, which stirred up a scandal); Borges as the man who is up to anything: he decided to learn Old English just for fun (this they did together with Kodama, bringing them closer to one another).
To me, this conversation was quite educational. I felt during the event that the works I have read by Borges gained a new meaning. Almost everything changed. The short stories, the poems, even the literary scene. Learning how his contemporaries felt challenged by Borges and sometimes angry with him because they could not match his genius, made me smile, almost laugh, but then I got to think about how great this person was. For me, it was a curious thing that Kodama talked about their relationship in such a simple way, like they were two ordinary people, having a 9 to 5 job. It felt like she rarely pondered on his fame, how well-known he was, she was definitely not star-struck, but still, she made a very appreciative and supportive companion.
I would recommend everyone to read a couple of Borges’ stories or poems, his take on the world and literature is especially unique, and the language he uses is always colourful, yet simple. Also, if you have the chance, visit Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum: it is very lovely, has an inviting atmosphere. I am one of those people who feel intimidated by huge museums (for me, they have a very serious vibe, which makes me feel like a little mouse facing a huge lion), but his particular one made me feel at home.
You can watch the talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdjeRC4naUk&feature=youtu.be (courtesy of Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum)
Pictures retrieved from:
Official Website of Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum