Borges, the executioner, and the collector

In which we solve a famous mystery of Latin American literature

Do you really want to know?

As a biographer, I’ve learned that the answer is very often “no.”

In recent days, my sister has been going through our great-grandmother’s correspondence. Like so many things involving the German Jews, it combines elegant handwriting and good stationery with stories so heartbreaking that my sister has called me several times in tears.

Coincidentally, a German friend wrote me a couple of weeks ago that he was wondering whether he should dig through his own grandfather’s war archive. This grandfather was in the Wehrmacht, which is why my friend, a distinguished journalist and biographer—the kind of person who reads old letters professionally—has been avoiding these documents for years.

I told him: There’s a reason you haven’t done it before, and that reason is: you don’t want to know.

People think they want to know, of course. But so often, my revelations about other people’s mothers, friends, heroes have caused grave offense.

I am not a “revelation” kind of writer. When I write about people I admire and respect, I am not trying to topple statues. I am trying to make the statues breathe again—clad them with flesh. This can mean revealing unappetizing sides, but in a way that, I hope, allows the reader to understand why. It might not be true that to understand all is to forgive all. But to understand all is to forgive a lot.

Still, even when my “revelations” are things that the offended parties surely knew already—even when I have tried to phrase them as diplomatically as possible—people bristle, send bitchy emails, write huffy reviews.

Which is why, after a couple of decades in this business, I have concluded that a lot of people want the statue.

More than want it: they need it.

The pandemic has had a curious feature. It has both sharply decreased the number of people I talk to (hence this Substack) and sharply increased the amount that I talk to those people I do talk to. And one of the people I talk to the most is Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

As an introduction: Pedro is a “collector” in the sense that Maria Callas is a “singer.” The word will never quite do him justice, but if you want to read about his collection, you can read here and here, about his exhibition last year at the Morgan Library. His collection, which has been going strong for more than fifty years, has been the subject of so many books that I can’t even begin to list them. Here’s the most recent one, beautifully published by Taschen. And here are Pedro and Arthur with a precious drawing by Santos-Dumont.

One of my favorite activities in Brazil—and in fact in life—is sitting down chez Pedro as he tosses things to me across the dining room table. Careful not to put your Diet Coke on the first page of Proust! A bull signed by a thirteenth-century antipope whizzes past, and then a pornographic drawing by Gustave Flaubert, and then a letter signed by a drunk Beethoven, and then the last will and testament of Eliza Lynch, dictatress of Paraguay.

It’s so much that after a few minutes you lose track of what you’re seeing. For Pedro, it’s impossible to know what to do with it all. No institution could do it justice, since these are museum pieces that wouldn’t really be at home in a museum: their thrill is their intimacy, the ability they give you to hold in your hand something that someone from the past held in his or her hand. And his collection can’t really be sold, either. Pedro is the Mansa Musa of manuscripts: like that king of Timbuktu who was so wealthy that the money he spent on his pilgrimage to Mecca depressed the value of gold for a whole generation. That’s what would happen to the market for autographs if Pedro ever decided to sell.

Susan Sontag said that a writer is someone who is interested in everything. That’s Pedro. And that’s why, in this pandemic year, I’ve had so much fun talking to him. There are people who are interested in everything. And then there’s Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

Which brings me to my story.

One of the old mysteries of Latin American literature is why, exactly, Jorge Luis Borges left his homeland in order to die abroad, in Switzerland.

Die and be buried there—denying Argentina so much as his corpse. Instead, at his own insistence, he lies in the Plainpalais cemetery in Geneva.

There are lots of stories and possible explanations for this decision, but none of them has been definitive.

For Pedro, the story began in 1978. He was 19, visiting Buenos Aires, and managed to get an invitation to see Borges. It was the classic meeting with the blind bard: the same shabby-genteel apartment, the same prissy chitchat. It’s the encounter with Borges reproduced in a thousand memoirs of pilgrims to the Calle Maipú.

Afterwards, Pedro, already a dedicated collector of autographs, went to an antique dealer’s and worked his way through a tall pile of paper. In it, he found a letter signed by Francisco Borges, the writer’s grandfather. The letter was a report to a superior notifying him that he had put a deserter, Silvano Acosta, to the firing squad.

It occured to Pedro that the letter might be more valuable to Borges than to himself, so he went back to his apartment to give it to him. He was there, taking tea with an elderly lady. Pedro read the letter, and as soon as he had finished the blind man said: “The letter is dated in the city of Paraná in January 1871.”

The lady exclaimed in English: “Oh yes, Georgie, you’re right!”

Pedro was amazed that Borges could have guessed the exact date and place.

“My English grandmother, the colonel’s widow, always told me that my grandfather had ordered the execution of a deserter. But I never knew his name. Silvano Acosta. How lovely! I’m going to write a ‘Milonga de Silvano Acosta.’”

Pedro was thrilled that his little chance discovery might add something to the great man’s body of work. For the next seven years, whenever he was in Buenos Aires, he visited him, never daring to ask if the text about Silvano Acosta had been written—and then, after his death in 1986, hoping something might surface in his literary remains. Nothing did.

A few months ago, an article appeared in La Nación. In it, the journalist Pablo Gianera announced a new discovery. Like so many of us, María Kodama, the writer’s widow, was whiling away the quarantine days by cleaning up her house. She came across a short text whose recalled its origins to Gianera:

It was in Buenos Aires that Borges dictated the page to me. He said that his grandfather had had this completely innocent man executed, that he wasn’t a traitor or any such thing. He also told me: “What an unjust, horrible thing my grandfather did.” I had to do what Borges wanted. Otherwise, this man would remain anonymous. It was quite an odd guilt complex, because Borges had nothing to do with it. But he wrote this anyway so that people would know that his grandfather had had the man shot.

Here is a quickest sketch of a translation, which you can read in Spanish here.

My father was conceived in the Junín garrison, a couple of leagues from the desert, in 1874. I was conceived at the San Francisco plantation, in the department of Río Negro, in Uruguay, in 1899. From the moment I was born I contracted a debt, rather mysterious, with an unknown man who had died in the morning of a day in a month in 1871. This debt was revealed to me recently, in a piece of paper signed by my grandfather, which was sold at public auction. Today I want to pay this debt. It would cost me nothing to imagine circumstantial flourishes, but I want to note the thin thread that ties me to this faceless man, of whom I know nothing but his almost anonymous name, and his lost death.

After the assassination of Urquiza, the guerrillas attacked Paraná. One morning they entered the plaza on horseback and ran around knocking heads and mocking the soldiers. It didn’t cross their minds to take the city.

In order to lift the siege, the government sent the Second Infantry. They needed more troops and a draft swept up a few hangers-on in the bars and the brothels. Acosta was nabbed in this raid, then a common occurrence. It wouldn’t be hard for me to assign him to a parish of Buenos Aires or a certain profession—assistant to a mason or someone who looked after horses—but that attribution would make him a literary character and not the man who was whatever he was. Before the end of the week he deserted from the barracks and went over to the guerrillas. Maybe he thought that the discipline among the gauchos would be less severe than in the ranks of a regular army. Maybe he wanted to get even for having been dragged off to the war. The campaign went on and a division of the Second brought back some prisoners. Someone recognized poor Acosta. He was a deserter and a traitor. Colonel Francisco Borges, my grandfather, signed the death sentence with the good handwriting of the time. Four marksmen executed him.

I was born thirty years later. A vague feeling of guilt ties me to this dead man. I know that I owe him a reparation, which will never reach him. I dictate this useless page on November 19, 1985.

Colonel Francisco Borges

The date was almost eight years after Pedro’s first visit. Why then? Pedro calculated that his final visit to Borges took place only four days before he dictated this text to Kodama. In that visit, they mentioned poor Silvano Acosta. It seems likely that the discussion recalled to Borges his obscure debt to the man, and made up his mind to dictate the page.

It must have been a painful thing to do. After all, the sedentary, tea-sipping Borges had long been fascinated by his guerrilla-slaying, rough-riding, nation-building ancestors. He often wrote and spoke about them, expressing an oblique pride in his proximity to an Argentine past that, by the time he came along, had already slipped into the realm of legend. This is a pride I understand intuitively; I have ancestors like that, too, conquerors of a North American pampa. My life could not be more different from theirs. But sometimes I can feel their blood coursing through my veins.

Yet the date reveals something else, too. This short text was the last thing that Argentina’s greatest writer would write in Argentina. It is a valediction. It is also a renunciation. Of that ancestry, of that history, of that nation.

Over the leaden years of depression and dictatorship, Borges’s disappointment with Argentina ripened. He had his own history of questionable political entanglements, of misplaced enthusiasms. Perhaps it was these, too, that made him feel he had a share in his grandfather’s guilt.

And so a nation’s greatest writer, in a final act of contrition, renounces his heritage and goes abroad to die. It is a subtle and elegant act. You might almost say it’s like something from a story by Borges.

Speaking of Argentina: my book, Sontag: vida y obra, has come out there. There have been lots of interesting articles.

“La regla para escribir una biografía es entrevistar a todo el mundo,” Télam. In La Nación, Nicolás Mavrakis asks: Para qué sirven los críticos en tiempos de algoritmos. That same paper also published this interview. I spoke to Ariana Sáenz Espinoza at Página 12, which also published this excerpt from the book. And in Semana, another interview.

It’s a lot, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but if I could recommend one, it’s this interview with Hinde Pomeraniec at Radio Nacional’s program “Vidas Prestadas.” In it, I got to talk about questions of censorship and how I would write differently if I had grown up in Latin America. If you want to read the transcript, aquí está.

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