Author, writer and translator María Kodama, the widow of famed Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, passed away on Sunday at the age of 86 in Vicente López. after suffering from breast cancer.
Kodama, who had been suffering from breast cancer, had an impressive prestigious literary career of her own but became a better-known public figure when she married Borges in 1986, months before the death of the legendary writer.
She became the sole owner of Borges' copyright after his death, just two months after their marriage, and held great influence over the publication and treatment of the work of Argentina's greatest poets, essayists and short story writers.
Kodama was born in Buenos Aires on March 10, 1937 to Maria Antonia Schweizer, of Swiss-German descent, and Japanese chemist Yosaburo Kodama.
A graduate in Literature from the University of Buenos Aires, she met Borges during her studies, with both sharing a love for the English and Icelandic languages.
Kodama first came to know Borges when she was only 16 years old, after having attended the author's lectures with her father.
"I miss Borges and the fun we used to have. My friends used to tell me 'It’s frightening how much time you spend with the labyrinthine man [a reference to the most frequent image in Borges' work].’ But once they got to know him, they came to see his charm and humour, and I must say labyrinths fascinate me. I always had a marvellous time with him. I’m not a masochist; he was a very lovable person," Kodama once said in a talk at the Guadalajara Book Fair in Mexico, reflecting on her time with the peerless writer.
After their time as university peers, the pair travelled together as colleagues to the United States in 1975. There, she collaborated with Borges on his Brief Anglo-Saxon Anthology (1978), as well as his 1984 book Atlas, an account of the trips they took together around the world.
The two also collaborated on a translation of Gylfaginning, the first book of Snorri Sturluson's Edda Minor series, which was published under the title La alucinación de Gylfi ("The Hallucination of Gylfi"). Kodama also featured in the 1978 film Borges Para Millones, directed by Ricardo Wullicher.
The two eventually married in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción on April 26, 1986, with Borges 38 years her senior.
After his death, Kodama became the sole owner of Borges' estate. The president of the Jorge Luis Borges International Foundation, based in Buenos Aires, she travelled the world sharing his work and overseeing his legacy, helping to ensure his work would not be forgotten.
In recent decades, she has found herself engaged in several legal disputes related to Borges’ work, the most famous of which being with writer Pablo Katchadjian in 2009, whom she accused of plagiarising sections of Borges' work El Aleph.
In 2021 she decided it was time to share her own story. Publishing a memoir/autobiography Esclava de la Libertad, which she wrote with journalist Mario Mactos, Kodama detailed her life prior to meeting Borges and her own personal experiences as an author.
A breast cancer diagnosis failed to dim her passion for literature, with Kodama continuing her prolific career until the very end. Her final work, La Divisa Punzo – in which she traces the history of Juan Manuel de Rosas – was published last year.
Although known most famously as the widow of Borges, Kodama once admitted that her relationship with the author was far from an easy ride.
"My mother always told me that Borges was old enough to be my grandfather, and she was right,” she said.
“But on the other hand, when we were teenagers, my friends always talked about starting families and having children, which I never wanted to do since I was a child of divorce.”
Kodama’s feelings regarding her romantic decisions were blunt, reflecting the candour that made her a successful carrier of Borges’ legacy.
"I have never felt that men dominated me or let them view me as inferior," she once declared.
What happens to the rights to Borges’ work now?
Kodama’s death brings to the fore the question of the future of Borges’ works. As his widow, she was the universal heiress of his copyright, according to the last will and testament of the author of Ficciones in 1985, months before his death.
Following the death of Argentina’s greatest writer, Kodama took on the administration of the most important literary estate in the Spanish language of the 20th century. She it was who negotiated editions and translations, as well as protagonising lawsuits such as against Pablo Katchadjian for pinching some of the most famous Borgean texts from El Aleph.
Regarding Borges’ copyright, Kodama’s lawyer Fernando Soto, said that her will and testament would be made known in the next few days, as well as defining who would be the executor.
Last August in one of her last interviews, Kodama told the newspaper La Nación that she had arranged to deliver part of the literary estate to a Japanese university and that the other part would go to a United States university. She gave no further details, except for two conditions – that both the Spanish language and the works of Borges be studied in the Japanese university while the US university should be one where the author of Otras inquisiciones had lectured (which could be Harvard or the University of Texas).
According to Argentine law, the Borges copyright will not become public domain until 2056.