The Spirit of Borges

Jorge Luis Borges was me.

That is, he understood me. His short stories spoke to me. So when his long-time companion, and short-time wife, Maria Kodama, breezed through town in October, I stopped by the Organization of American States to sit down with her for a while. She was at the OAS with actor Anthony Quinn to give support to a Latin film festival. At the press conference, Quinn, predictably, took charge of the moment. Kodama watched quietly, an ever-present twinkle in her brown eyes.

When Quinn was finished, reporters asked Kodama questions about the documentary-like film, "Borges, Books and Nights." I wanted to talk to her about the man.

Some background: Borges was born in 1899 and was blind by the time he was 40. Kodama met Borges in the 1950s when she was in her teens. He was about 45 years her senior. He tutored her in Old English. They became friends, she explains. And she admired his writing. "I felt a swelling," she says, "as if it were music."

"She was not just someone to take him by the arm, but someone knowledgeable who shared his interests and sense of humor. She really changed his life," translator Rolando Costa Picazo told reporter Paula Durbin of Americas magazine.

Borges eventually married someone else, but the marriage failed and he moved back in with his mother in 1971. Over the next 15 years, Borges and Kodama grew closer. They married in April 1986. Borges died a few weeks later.

Today, Kodama is a strong and striking presence in white jacket and brown blouse. Her hair is a layer of white upon a layer of brown. She wears much jewelry--all gifts from Borges. Her voice is soothing-soft, her English superb. She sips a Coke from a can, every now and then, to whet her whistle.

The spirit of Borges, she says, is forever with her. "I know that Borges was blind and old," she says. "But not for me. It was impossible for me to see him as blind." The Borges she knew was a vital, energetic man.

She says, "He was a very free person. He was never tied to a schedule." Buenos Aires was his round-the-clock oyster. As for his writing habits, she says, "he would wait until the muse or spirit would visit him. Usually in a dream." The next morning, he would take a long, hot bath, a la Alan Greenspan. "In that kind of Nirvana," she says, "he would contemplate what he could do with the dream." Then he would begin to dictate his story or his poem to Kodama.

Some of his work was about the woman he loved. She marveled at his energy and breadth of understanding. There is one story that troubles her, however. It is "The Aleph," one of Borges's most famous works. "I feel," she says, "like it's two stories."

I ask her how Borges felt about being passed over for the Nobel Prize year after year. She says he made sort of a game out of not winning. "He always said something very special," she says. Near the end of his life he told someone that he prayed he would never receive the prize. If he did win, he said, he would become just another name on a list. But if he continued to be a perennial loser, "this way he lived in mythology and became part of a Swedish myth."

At the end of our conversation, I ask if she remembers any Old English prose. Her face lights up. She says she's going to speak from a 10th-century work about the Battle of Maldon. In her amused and musical voice, she recites line after line after lyrical line. The Old English is rhythmic, ancient, abiding.

I close my eyes.

For just a moment, I am Borges.

Belief in the Book

Roger MacBride Allen thinks a lot about the future. The Takoma Park author has written a slew of science fiction books, including several Star Wars titles, Isaac Asimov-related stories and this year's The Depths of Time, published by Bantam.

"Allen meets his usual high standard in this far-future combination of speculative hard science, social sf, and pure adventure," a Booklist reviewer wrote of Depths. At 43, Allen seems to have a great, well, future with mainstream publishers such as Bantam, Avon and others.

So why has Allen published A Quick Guide to Book-On-Demand Printing: Learn How to Print and Bind Your Own Paperback Books?

"For a number of reasons," he says. The main one: "It's tough to get old books back in print."

In the next month or so, Allen, using off-the-shelf technology, is going to publish a new on-demand paperback version of Orphan of Creation, his 1986 book that has been out of print for a while. "It had one edition and vanished," he says. Orphan revolves around the discovery of an extant race of prehumans.

He wants to make it available again, but he cannot find a publisher. He says he isn't the only established writer who wants to market his own works. "Anyone who has been writing in science fiction has a book like that," he says. "It's really frustrating that readers can't get the book."

Allen is publishing on-demand books on a small scale, but the implications for the industry are vast. In the same way that Stephen King is experimenting with bypassing the publisher, Allen and folks like him are toying with self-publishing as an alternative to the traditional book-making chain of command.

Why not publish Orphan on the Internet?

"It's not something you can put on a shelf," Allen says of an e-book. "You can't carry it with you."

The far-out futurist gets downright romantic about old-time paper. "People do like books," he says. "The paperback book is compatible with all software systems." He adds that a book is "a lot more robust, a lot more reliable than an electronic device."

Allen, who has been writing professionally since 1983, has set up a Web site: www.rmallen.net. He says that schools or church groups or writers' clubs might want to set up their own on-demand publishing company. New software and scanners and printers enable folks to print small amounts of books and keep their costs down, he says.

He has turned several rooms in his home into a small publishing enterprise. He distributes the book through online book stores and at science fiction conventions. When he's not cranking out his books, he takes care of his 2-year-old son.

Here are the steps:

1) Write the book.

2) Lay out the book.

3) Find some way of printing the book. "That can be a little involved," he says. You can pay anywhere from $200 to $20,000 for the equipment you need, in addition to a topnotch computer and printer.

4) Cut the pages. "The paper cutter can be the most expensive thing you will buy," he says. A good one that cuts an inch-and-a-half stack of paper can run you $700 or more, he says.

5) Glue the pages together.

6) Print a book cover.

7) Glue the cover onto the book. "This," Allen says, "is surprisingly easy to do." He's even done it by hand with a brush and a glue pot. Next "you will have to run the book through the paper cutter again and make it square."

Voila! Your very own books.

Will such robust entrepreneurship mean that writers won't be needing big publishers in the future? "I doubt it," he says.

Prizes and Surprises

Literary prizes are like Dr. Ruth Westheimer: They keep turning up all over the place.

The winner of the second annual James A. Michener Memorial Prize is William Gay, 57, author of the novel The Long Home. The prize is given to a writer who publishes his or her first book after the age of 40. It is intended to make the writing of the second book easier.

Gay's second novel, Provinces of Night, will be published in December. He lives in Hohenwald, Tenn., where he is a construction worker. He writes at night. As winner of the prize, he receives $10,000 and a few moments of literary fame.

If you're 36 or younger, tough luck. The prize is scheduled to be given for only three more years.

Oldsters are raking in the prizes. Evan S. Connell, 76, is the winner of the 2000 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. The prize, given to a writer who has made significant contributions to English literature, is worth $100,000. Eight other writers won awards in various categories. Herbert Morris, poetry; Jay Wright, poetry; Robert Coover, fiction; David Malouf, fiction; Cynthia Ozick, fiction; Leslie Marmon Silko, fiction; Bill McKibben, nonfiction and Carl Safina, nonfiction. All together, the writers carted home $600,000 in prize money.

The first Lannan Awards were handed out in 1989 to honor great writers and writing. Since then 105 writers have divvied up more than $5.7 million.

Meanwhile, three area romance writers won Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Awards. Leslie Ryan of Gordonsville, Va., Julia Slavin of Washington and Lisa Russ Spaar of Charlottesville won grants from writer Rona Jaffe. Grants are tailored to individual needs and max out at $8,500. Jaffe's latest book, The Road Taken, was published last summer.

The winners of the 2000 Kiriyama Pacific Book Rim Prize are Michael Ondaatje in fiction for Anil's Ghost and Michael David Kwan for his memoir Things That Must Not Be Forgotten: A Childhood In Wartime China. The two writers, rewarded for promoting understanding among Pacific Rim folks, will split $30,000.

Linton Weeks is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at weeksl@washpost.com.