Jorge Luis Borges’ widow, heiress and estate executor Maria Kodama passed away on Sunday at 86. Her death has brought up the question of who will own — and benefit from — the rights to Borges’ works until 2052 when they become public domain.
Kodama’s attorney Fernando Soto told Télam that his legal team would now “take over the continuity” of Borges’ intellectual property. “María was very discreet and we will maintain that discretion to announce how we will continue to work with Borges legacy, not just his books, but also the library and the foundation, all things related to his huge patrimonial and cultural legacy,” he explained.
Kodama herself had previously mentioned her plans for Borges’ copyrights in an interview with La Nación newspaper.
“One part will be handled by a US university where he used to lecture,” she said. “And the other part will be managed by a Japanese university that teaches Spanish and offers classes on Borges’ work.”
Yet Soto said that such a decision will be announced “in due time”. “Let’s not jump ahead, that decision is part of caring for the legacy of Borges in the world, not just in Argentina, but also in Japan, the home of María’s ancestors, where the work of Borges has been taught so much, or the US, a country that carries the love of the time they spent there together”.
“Today we mourn María, the burial was very hard. We said goodbye to a friend. Only now we will begin working on this and the characteristics of this continuity will be informed in due time,” he added.
A fierce legacy
The late guardian’s attitude towards the Borges legacy, which reached the courts in various lawsuits, was an unavoidable topic on social networks. Users bowed with messages of gratitude to her enormous task as promoter of the Argentine writer’s work, while also recalling her zealous task as literary executor, which earned her numerous rivalries and confrontations.
Although she was also a translator, teacher and author, Kodama was mostly recognized as Borges’ heiress, a task she took on with controversy. In her Twitter sendoff, philosopher Diana Maffia made a point of switching up the usual way she was presented: “María Kodama, writer, translator and professor of literature, as well as the widow and executor of Jorge Luis Borges, died this March 26 at the age of 86,” she wrote.
The case against writer Pablo Katchadjian, who expanded Borges’s most famous story, “El Aleph,” adding 5,600 words, was the one that caused the greatest international stir and shook the local literary universe, which united in defense of the author.
Katchadjian was prosecuted in 2015 by judge Guillermo Carvajal in a case for alleged plagiarism of “El Aleph”, that originated in a complaint by Kodama herself. At the time, the judge asserted that the book “The Fattened Aleph” was a “copy” of Borges’s work, in which “words, phrases and complete sentences were interspersed, without any differentiation in their printing.” Yet months later, the Chamber of Appeals overturned the ruling on the grounds that it lacked merit, and forced Kodama to pay almost 900,000 pesos in legal costs.
Another one of Kodama’s battles was against Alejandro Vaccaro, the current president of the El Libro Foundation, which organizes the Buenos Aires Book Fair. She had a long-lasting rivalry with Vaccaro, who is also Borges’ biographer and collector, whom she accused of wanting to “take advantage” of the Borges name. She took her accusation to the courts, where she sued him for defamation for an article published in a magazine.
Kodama took on her task of universal heir as a true guardian, participating in the decision-making process for every edition. She even blocked some editions, such as the North American publication of “Borges Sábato Dialogues”, which came out in Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese, but did not have an English edition in the US due to her refusal.
Kodama’s persistent watchful eye on issues related to copyright went beyond our country. In 2006 she stopped the publication of Borges’s complete works by French publishing house Gallimard, as well as a book of conversations with Jean Pierre Bernés. Kodama’s explanation is that Bernés refused to give her a copy of the conversation he had with Borges shortly before the writer’s death, in Geneva.
But Kodama’s protection was not restricted to books. In 2017, a Congresswoman presented a bill to repatriate Borges’ remains, and the heiress came out against it. In a radio conversation at the time, she said that she was “terribly saddened” by the initiative and said that “in a democracy no person from any party should appropriate or try to appropriate the body of a person, which is the most sacred thing, against someone who has given and continues to give her life for love”.
In a 2021 interview with Télam, Kodama described her unexpected and unwanted title of executor. “If I had known Borges was naming me his universal heiress, I would not have accepted. That’s why when he died his lawyer told me that he had to give me the news that I was his sole executor before going to the press. I said ‘Why was I not consulted?’ And he said that Borges ordered him to wait until he was dead to tell me, because otherwise I would not accept. Borges knew that it was going to be me. My friends told me: ‘Sure, he was quick, because he knew how you would guard his work, you’re Japanese, and if you have a responsibility, you’re going to fulfill it, even if it costs you your life.’”
With information by Télam. Translated by Agustín Mango