THE pavement flower-seller is doing brisk trade with sprigs of new-season white jasmine twisted in cellophane cones, as fluffy as scoops of ice cream. My guide, Florencia Fragasso, and I pause to admire his wares on Calle Jorge Luis Borges, the street where Argentina’s most famous literary figure lived in the early 20th century.
This boulevard, in the fashionable Buenos Aires barrio of Palermo Viejo, is full of shady oaks, cafes, smart shops and savvy vendors such as this morning’s flowerman. But in Borges’s day the street was Calle Serrano, deep in the Italian quarter, home to bands of compadritos, those knife-carrying swaggerers celebrated in his writings, to brothels and tango cabarets.
We are nearing the close of our three-hour exploration of the Argentinian writer’s haunts. Fragasso works for Eternautas, a Buenos Aires-based tour company specialising in historic walks on specific themes, from the city’s Jewish history and the Parisian-influenced architecture of its ritzy northern suburbs to the trails of famous residents, such as Evita Peron.
Our tour has begun in Plaza San Martin park in the city’s Retiro neighbourhood. Here, Borges and his Bloomsbury-style circle of the 1920s and early ’30s — which included Victoria Ocampo, founder of the literary magazine Sur, and writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, married to Victoria’s sister, the poet Silvina Ocampo — would meet to converse and promenade under linden trees and flowering acacias.
IN THE WRITE PLACE
I AM in the room of El Escritor, the writer, at Legado Mitico, a funky 11-room hotel in the arty Palermo Viejo district of Buenos Aires. The room honours Jorge Luis Borges who grew up hereabouts, although he died long before the hotel was even thought of. Its themed rooms celebrate the respective lives of Argentian notables, from first lady Eva Peron (La Primera Dama) and tango singer Carlos Gardel (El Tanguero) to Che Guevera (El Idealista).
The design touches are subtle but appropriate. In El Escritor, there’s a nod to Borges’ love of mirrors, an oil painting of a library collection and an old Royal portable typewriter on an antique desk. Borges rubs shoulders with Victor Hugo, Leon Bloy and Henri Troyat on the chummy bookshelf.
The hotel opened in November 2007 and its young staff are courteous and helpful. Breakfast is served at individual tables in a long room stuffed with comfy furniture, piles of magazines and books; it feels like eating in a library, a notion of which Borges would have approved.
There’s a solarium and patio and light evening meals can be organised upon request. Diagonally opposite Legado Mitico is a gorgeous little shop, Sabater Hnos, which sells handmade soaps in fun shapes (stars, figures, flowers and flakes) and big bath cakes with block-printed lettering. Fragrances include vanilla, citrus and coconut; these are perfect souvenirs that will also perfume your suitcase.
Legado Mitico, Gurruchaga 1848, Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires. From $US190 ($288) a double, breakfast included. More: www.legadomitico.com; www.kiwicollection.com.
Only three of the nine original turn-of-the-20th-century palaces of Argentina’s most prominent landed families remain intact on the park’s perimeter but this is still a gracious square, a European transplant with the mansard roofs of its encircling buildings designed for the snows of Paris.
In 1944, Borges moved into a sixth-floor apartment near here, No 6B at 994 Calle Maipu, behind Paz Palace (now the Military Officers’ Association), with a corner balcony and a view angled towards Plaza San Martin, where it’s believed his beloved white cat Beppo eventually was buried. (Later this week, I will spend the morning with Borges’s widow, Maria Kodama, and when I ask about the cat’s elysian parkland grave, she just laughs and says, “It is a nice story; one of many.”)
We cross Calle Maipu into Galleria del Este to visit Libreria de la Ciudad bookshop. The arcade was once a jumble of cafes, art galleries and bespoke shops where intellectuals paraded and gathered. Borges, in old age, held court in the tiny shop, his followers spilling into the stone-tiled corridor clutching volumes waiting to be signed. In the window are myriad black-and-white photos of the writer and a pink-covered first edition of his 1925 poetry collection Luna de Enfrente.
Inside is the chair and desk at which Borges would sit and hold court, dictating his poems as his eyesight failed; it’s like a little shrine.
At the far end of the Galleria del Este, we emerge not into the mirrored labyrinth of my Borges-influenced imaginings but the penny-plain lobby of the Howard Johnson hotel. We walk out to Florida Street where a closed-up Harrods sits dismally amid stores selling sporting goods, brand-name fashion and souvenirs.
Most tourists pass by Florida Street’s antiquated Richmond Teashop with its unicorn-and-crown logo, leather chairs and wood-panelled walls. It looks freshly uplifted from Mayfair and Borges, grandson of a Staffordshire woman and ever an Anglophile, loved it, sitting to write by a row of mirrors, the emblems he used so often in his poetry, the portals to other realities, different identities.
After a morning tea, we catch a cab and our tour shifts to Palermo Chico where a modernist house at 2831 Rufino de Elizalde (one block back from the main thoroughfare, Avenida Libertador) sits oddly amid the preferred mini-chateau architecture of this wealthy borough. This stark residence is now El Fondo Nacional de las Artes, hailed as the first modern home in Buenos Aires when it was designed in 1929 by Alejandro Bustillo for Victoria Ocampo. Although there are no tours, visitors can drop in and see photos of Borges, the Ocampo sisters and their set adorning the ground-floor gallery and entry area.
We pass Buenos Aires Zoo on Avenida La Heras, at the edge of Palermo, which Borges wrote smelled of “candy and tigers” and he loved to sit and observe the caged big cats. Felines appear as frequent motifs in his work — of unknowable cats he wrote “your haunch allows the lingering caress of my hand” — and Fragasso says he was fascinated that every tiger has a different coat, with infinitesimal variations of stripes.
In Borges’s 1949 poem The Writing of the God, his favourite animal acquires a divine presence when a prisoner believes a message from God is written in the stripes of a tiger he glimpses each day in the next cell.
Back at 2135 Calle Jorge Luis Borges, the brick house where the writer grew up has been gussied up with a frankly ugly triangular entrance (there is a plaque announcing his residency from 1901 to 1914). Fragasso takes me up the street to the block bounded by Guatemala and Paraguay streets; this is the site, she says, that in his 1929 poem Buenos Aires, Borges imagined as the mythical foundation of the capital, a city as “eternal as water and air”.
On an opposite corner, along from Borges’s boyhood home, El Preferido is a pink-painted corner shop and cafe built in 1885; it would have been a fixture on the streetscape of Borges’s youth. The paint colour, says Fragasso, originally was a blend of cow’s blood and lime; this favoured pink treatment is most famously evident in Buenos Aires at the seat of government, Casa Rosada in Plaza de Mayo, where Evita waved to her supporters from a balcony backed by a trio of tall arched windows.
Inside El Preferido, diners are lunching on empanadas and licking their fingers over bowls of oil-slicked olives; they sit on orange stools at high wooden tables with bright green tops (imagine the nicks of the compadritos’ daggers).
El Preferido has colour and gusto, the working-class air of a real neighbourhood chow-house. Borges described it as “a pink shop, like the back of a playing card (where) in the backroom there was poker talk”.
In the 1600 section of Calle Jorge Luis Borges, an alleyway, simply named Russell, connects with Thames Street. A run-down brick building in this old passageway, No.5058, has a for sale sign; we peek through the fence and see heaps of rubble. This “long, narrow house”, says Fragasso, was mentioned in the Borges story of the knife-fighter Juan Morana. “It is definitely this house,” Fragasso insists, “because it is the only one on Russell Alley with a door leading to San Salvador Street behind, and that’s how Borges described it.”
Unless you are a Borges scholar, it would be difficult to design one’s own trail; without Fragasso marching ahead, prodding at obscure doorways, I would never have found so many signposts of the writer’s life. (Fragasso gives me the addresses, too, of other brass-plaque apartment buildings where Borges lived, in high-end Recoleta, on Calle Presidente Quintana and Avenida Pueyrrydon.)
It’s fitting to end at Boutique del Libro on Thames Street (at the other end of Russell). There’s no tangible Borges connection at this bookshop but it is in his childhood neighbourhood and contains a fine collection of Latin-American writers and poets, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda to Isabel Allende and Laura Esquival and, naturally, Borges. The English translations are upstairs, at the rear, in a gallery that looks down on the shop’s lovely little cafe. The volume of Borges I want is out of stock but on top of a pile waiting to be catalogued is a must-buy book of Sylvia Ocampo’s poetry.
Later in the day, after Fragasso and I have parted and the fierce November sun has cooled, I return to Plaza San Martin. A man is walking a cat on a leash while his partner, bending forward at an uncomfortable angle, holds a parasol over the puss’s head.
Borges strolled here until he was an old man, blind and frail. He must have felt safe in this known environment of concentric paths and strong ancient trees. He wrote that as his eyesight failed, gradually just one shade remained: “precisely the colour of the tiger, the colour yellow”. Those who passed him in Plaza San Martin would have seen him almost prowling, like the pacing tigers in Buenos Aires zoo.
A FEW days later I learn the Argentinian capital is all about circular connections, like the writings of Borges with his “inexhaustible stairways” of discovery. By chance, on my hunt for a handbag, I meet Maria Ines Caruso of the Rossi & Caruso leather dynasty. We chat about my interest in Borges and she asks where I amstaying.
Early next morning, Caruso rings my hotel to announce I must call Maria Kodama. She met her the previous evening at an event (Buenos Aires high society is awash with events), told her about me and now she has Kodama’s personal number. Caruso lowers her voice for that word personal as if she believes the phone is bugged. And when Caruso gives me the actual number of Borges’s widow, her voice is so conspiratorial I can barely hear.
Surely it is too early to call Kodama, who has been likened by many to Yoko Ono; she is of Japanese-Argentinian background and is said to be a prickly protector of her husband’s legacy and estate. A former student of Borges’s and many years his junior, she married him in 1986, the year he died at age 86.
While I bide time to a civilised hour to call, I re-read several of Borges’s short stories. That I have this book, which was unavailable at Boutique del Libro, has involved another mini-labyrinth. Yesterday I met Lucia Bo, sales and marketing manager of the Sofitel Buenos Aires, and we had tea in the hotel’s Bibiliotheque salon. She said Kodama, who lives nearby, is a frequent visitor to this library lounge so I remarked at the odd lack of works by Borges on the shelves. Borges found immense beauty and consolation in libraries, expressing the hope that eternal paradise “will be a kind of library”.
Without delay, Bo sent someone off to find the book I wanted. And so I read my windfall collection for about two hours before calling Kodama. She will spot me for a fraud if I can’t talk about Borges’s work. Far from being the terrifying person I imagine, she sounds charming, precise. She says I should meet her now (I am on the other side of the city). Failing that, in 10 minutes.
I tell her I will see her in 20 minutes. “Perfect, anyway,” she says.
We meet at the Jorge Luis Borges International Foundation at Anchorena 1660 in Recoleta next to the house where the writer lived from 1938 to 1943. Visits here are by appointment only but Kodama says she is thinking of opening part of the immense multi-storeyed building as a museum.
She is interested in my ideas about museums: what should be accessible, how close to allow visitors to precious exhibits and what, in fact, do people want to see and how often should displays change.
It is a work in early progress; she flings open the door of “a mess room” jumbled with Borges’s academic gowns (he received doctorates from many universities), boxes of papers that include his childhood drawings of cats and tigers, and a chair with a tapestry seat of unicorns embroidered by Borges’s sister, Norah. Kodama particularly loves a picture of him as an old man, his sightless eyes squeezed tight with joy as he is stroked by the paw of a tame tiger. The assured Kodama, with her playful eyes and pert grey bob, is diminutive and her many bangles chime as she walks with the sleek grace of a pedigree cat.
Those who criticise her, Kodama says, and her fierce guardianship of the Borges estate, are “common delinquents”. I like her enormously.
Just before I leave, she introduces me to the graduate students and researchers working in a top-storey room on an archive of her husband’s personal papers, his cherished books, copies of Sur, international newspapers and magazines that span decades. It’s a labyrinthine library of the great writer’s life that curls around corners, the multiplying reflections from tall windows suggesting the prospect of infinity.
Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Qantas and Destino Argentina.
Qantas started thrice-weekly non-stop flights to Buenos Aires in November last year. Flying time is about 12 hours. Check website specials or consider a tour with Australian-based South American specialist Blanco Touring Company.
February 07, 2009