One Word Makes a Difference

Argentinian Writer Jorges Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Argentinian Writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

There is a wonderful novel by José Saramago called The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989) in which a historian introduces a single word—“not”—to indicate that Crusaders failed to help lift the Portuguese king lift the siege of the city of Lisbon from the attacking Moors. The other day, I saw an article in the I Love Chile News in which the word “not” was inadvertently omitted, changing the whole sense of the passage.

In an interview with Maria Kodama, Borges’s widow, the I Love Chile News said that the Nobel Prize Committee actually wanted Borges to accept an honor from dictator Augusto Pinochet. It is generally thought that the Committee refused to give the Nobel Prize for Literature to Borges because he was hobnobbing with rightist dictator. Following is the text of the story as it was printed:

According to an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, before traveling to Chile in 1976 to receive an honorary award of the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities of the University of Chile, the author received a call from Stockholm.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize and they warned him that he should [here’s where the “not” belongs] go forward with his visit to the South American country.

According to Kodama, Borges told the Nobel Foundation member: “Look, gentleman: I am grateful for your kindness, but after what you just told me my duty is to go to Chile. There are two things that a man can not allow: bribe or be bribed. Thank you very much, good morning.”

Historical Background

Borges arrived in Chile in mid-September, in the same days in which the socialistic ex-chancellor Orlando Letelier was murdered in Washington.

A few months earlier, Borges had already received the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins from the Chilean embassy in Buenos Aires. It was the highest honor you could receive from the military dictatorship as a foreigner at the time.

In his acceptance speech in Santiago, Borges paid tribute to the repression by saying that “in this era of anarchy in here, between the mountains and the sea, there is a strong country. (The Argentine poet Leopoldo) Lugones preached strong homeland when he spoke of the time of the sword. I declare to prefer the sword, the clear sword, to the furtive dynamite,” he said, quoting a verse.

“And I say this knowing very clearly, very precisely, what I say. Well, my country is emerging from the swamp, I think, with happiness. I think we deserve to go out of the morass in which we were. We are already going through the work of swords, exactly. And here they have already emerged from the swamp. And here we are: Chile, the region, the country, which is both a long country and an honorable sword,” said Borges.

At the time Argentina was under the dictatorship of General Jorge Videla, who according to official figures killed thousands of people during the repression.

The next day, Borges also met Pinochet and said “he is an excellent person, his warmth, his goodness … I’m very satisfied … The fact that here, also in my country, and in Uruguay, the freedom and the order is saved, especially in an anarchy continent, a continent undermined by communism. I expressed my satisfaction, as an Argentine, of which we should have here nearby a country of order and peace.”

There are several things questionable about the story. I doubt that the Nobel Prize Committee would have been so overt about dangling the award in front of Borges. It may well be true that kowtowing to Pinochet cost Borges his Nobel, but Ms. Kodama has been known to embroider the facts on occasion.