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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

María Kodama, keeper of the Borges legacy, dies at 86

María Kodama in 2007. She was an assistant to the writer Jorge Luis Borges before becoming his wife, and later, the guardian of his legacy.

By Neil Genzlinger

María Kodama, a writer and translator who was best known for guarding the legacy of her husband, the masterly Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, died on March 26 in the Buenos Aires suburb of Vincente López. She was 86.

Fernando Soto, her lawyer, announced her death on Twitter. News accounts said the cause was breast cancer.

For years Kodama was Borges’ secretary, aide and traveling companion. A few months before he died in 1986, they married. Borges bequeathed the rights to his works to Kodama, and soon after his death she established the Jorge Luis Borges International Foundation to further the appreciation of his writing and protect it from what she viewed as misappropriation and misinterpretation.

In the days since Kodama’s death, news accounts have said that she apparently left no will and that the status of the Borges estate is in limbo.

“She didn’t like to talk about those issues,” Soto told The Associated Press. “She didn’t talk about her death.”

In life, Kodama was devoted to Borges, one of the towering figures of 20th century Latin American literature. Borges was some 38 years older than her, and by the time she began working for and with him, he had lost his eyesight.

“She would read to him, and he fell in love with her voice,” Andrew Wylie, her literary agent in New York, said in a phone interview, “which was something that you could easily imagine him doing, because her voice was very particular and interesting and lovely.”

It was a relationship that began, in a sense, when Kodama was a child. She was born on March 10, 1937, in Buenos Aires. Her father, Yosaburo, was Japanese, and her mother, María Antonia Schweizer, was an Argentine German. Her parents separated when she was young, and she was “brought up between two cultures,” as she put it in a 2016 interview for The Sydney Review of Books.

At a presentation recorded by the Library of Congress in 2017, Kodama said she first encountered Borges’ work when she was 5 years old and a woman who was tutoring her in English read her two of his poems, which had been written, in English, to a woman he was interested in at the time.

“He offers her his solitude, his sadness, his failure and ‘the hunger of my heart,’” she told The Sydney Review. “When she translated this for me, I asked her, ‘What is hunger of the heart?’ because obviously for a 5-year-old child, hunger is only the need to eat. She told me I would understand when I grew up.”

When she was 12, she was taken to a lecture he gave. A few years later, now a budding scholar, she ran into him at a bookstore in Buenos Aires. She told him she had heard him speak when she was a girl; he invited her to join a study group he was leading on Anglo-Saxon literature.

Kodama studied literature at the University of Buenos Aires, where Borges was a professor. By the late 1960s, she was acting as his assistant.

Biographers have long speculated on the nature of their relationship, but there is no doubt that she read to him, took his dictation, eventually traveled with him extensively and on some works was essentially his collaborator — for instance, his “Atlas” (1984) was a collection of essays and stories based on their travels together.

The years after Borges’ death were often contentious ones for Kodama. She did some writing of her own, including publishing “Homage to Borges,” a collection of lectures she had given about him, in 2016, but much of her time was consumed with fighting legal challenges and bringing some herself over rights, translations and other issues.

“I’ve been through 30 years of hell,” she said in the interview with The Sydney Review. “I have been defamed.”

Scholars and others complained about her handling of Borges’ archive and her view of his legacy. One controversy found its way to a Manhattan theater, where in 1987, choreographer and director Graciela Daniele presented a work called “Tango Apasionado” based on some of Borges’ writings.

The show was well received — Mel Gussow, reviewing it for The New York Times, called it “a music-theater-dance piece of breathtaking intensity” — and it seemed headed for an extended off-Broadway run and tour. Kodama had approved the original run, but once she saw the show, she refused permission for an extension without extensive changes to the dialogue.

Those changes, Daniele told the Times, “would not have been the piece we created.” (She and her collaborator, Jim Lewis, later created a different version of the show without the Borges material.)

Whatever the controversies, Wylie said Kodama and Borges were a good fit.

“She was a lovely and brilliant complement to his genius,” he said, “which was considerable.”

She leaves no immediate survivors.

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