“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” – Jorge Luis Borges
Several of Argentina’s icons and leaders have permanent places here in Buenos Aires. The country’s liberator, Don Jose de San Martin, lies in a tomb at the national cathedral, guarded every day by soldiers in historical uniform. The Evita museum pays respect to the life of Argentina’s most famous female figure. Xul Solar, an abstract painter, has 100 of his paintings on display at his former townhouse, now a museum.
The list goes until Jorge Luis Borges, the literary giant who mused about labyrinths, eternity and felines. His short stories and poetry will undoubtedly be read, analyzed and admired for decades. When I flipped through tourist books, nothing notable is mentioned about a Borges museum, or a place dedicated to his legacy. Channeling my inner literary nerd, I sought out to find an homage to Borges.
Borges’ San Telmo Office
A helpful New York Times article on Borges gave me a general outline of places to visit (some places mentioned – like the Confiteria Richmond – unfortunately no longer exist). I first ventured to San Telmo to the former National Library, now the National Center of Music, where Borges served as its director in 1955. Located at Mexico 564, the old National Library seems out of place. The building appears too grand and too big for such a quiet street. When I walked in, the magnificent architecture immediately struck me. A place worthy of Borges!
My hopes to see Borges’ old office and the library were dashed when the front desk informed me the museum was under renovation until February for a new exhibit. Borges is still very much a part of the building today. From October to December, French artist Christian Boltanski paid tribute to Borges at the library with his “Flying Books,” exhibit, where he suspended hundreds of opened books from the ceiling. Although I didn’t attend, the exhibit gave the building a surreal image.
Next to the National Library is El Historico, an upscale Argentine restaurant housed in the former building of the Argentine Society of Writers. The restaurant was practically empty for lunch hour in January, which allowed me to look around. Walking through the first doorway on the right, I saw an old plaque of the Society’s board of directors, 1942-1944. A Sr. Jorges Luis Borges is listed a few names down.
I walked back to Avenida de Mayo and took the A Line, the oldest subway line in the Southern Hemisphere, which connects to the C line going to Retiro. I got off at Plaza San Martin, which is a short block from one of Borges’ old apartments where he lived intermittently for 40 years. Located at Maipu 994, and closed off to the public, I was only able to take pictures of the outside. The doorman informed me that Borges lived on the sixth floor. I asked if he knew of any places where I could find a good collection of Borges work, and he suggested the Centro Cultural Borges in the Galerias Pacifico mall. I was certain he was fooling me. A Borges center in a shopping mall? With too much time on my hands, I went with low expectations.
Centro Cultural Borges—A Pleasant Surprise
Upon arriving at Galerias Pacifico, bustling shoppers surrounded me on their way to the next high-end clothing store. Ugh. I asked an information desk about this “Centro Borges,” and the receptionist told me to go to the top floor. I continued on, certain I was wasting my Borges afternoon in a packed mall.
Opened in 2003, the Centro Cultural Borges is an incredibly pleasant surprise. It is the closest place Buenos Aires has to a museum for him. On the top floor of the Galerias Pacifico, which is in a beautiful, French-style building, is the Centro. It’s so quiet I quickly forgot I was in a mall. There’s a room dedicated to the life and work of Borges, and several other rooms that host paintings of famous artists and photographers. Painter Diego Torres currently has a collection of his brilliantly colored paintings of famous women on display (above, Evita). An impressive exhibit of photographs by Tina Modotti occupies another gallery room.
The room dedicated to Borges has a few original pages of the transcript from “The Aleph,” arguably his most famous work. Several of his famous quotes adorn the white plaster walls too. The front page of La Nacion, a respected newspaper, from the day Borges died is framed. He covered nearly the entire page. One wall lists many important Borges places in Buenos Aires – old apartments, offices, cafes he frequented – along with interesting facts. For instance, at his apartment Anchorena 1672, where Borges lived from 1938-43, he wrote the short story “Las Ruinas Circulares.” Although born in an apartment at Tucuman 838, Borges spent his childhood at his grandparents house in Palermo at Serrano 2135, a street that is now named in his honor.
Sitting at Borges’ desk
[*Update April 2016 – Unfortunately the bookstore La Ciudad mentioned below has now closed. We are adding this note to save people from a wasted journey, but are leaving the original text below so as not to take away from the article*]
For my last stop, I went back to Calle Maipu to check out La Ciudad bookstore, a place Borges was a regular at, according to the New York Times article. Tucked into a small shopping gallery (the Galeria del Este at Maipu 971), La Ciudad maintains its antique atmosphere very well. A desk covered with old editions of Borges’ work welcomes visitors.
When I walked in, a bookstore clerk suggested I sit at the desk. Worried he thought I was buying a very expensive Borges book, I made it clear I only came to look. The clerk waved off my concern, pulled the chair out and asked me to sit. The old wooden chair wobbled and creaked as I lowered into it. I thought it might break. The clerk pointed to the picture frame on the desk. I looked closely and sure enough, it was an old, frail Borges sitting in the exact same chair. I smiled from ear to ear, completely ecstatic. However small, I felt some connection with him, sitting in his old chair.
I began my trek to find an homage to Borges with a simple narrative: there’s got to be one place out there where I can spend the afternoon admiring his work. The architect of literary labyrinths and infinite time probably shook his head at me from his heavenly library. Borges was known for aimlessly strolling around Buenos Aires. With a little imagination, it’s not difficult to picture him walking out of the National Library, La Ciudad or his apartment on Maipu.
In “The Aleph,” he describes an anonymous house on a random corner in the neighborhood of Constitucion where the Aleph resides as, “the only place on earth where all places are.” Such symbolism seems to have carried over from his fiction to his legacy. Infinity, and Borges, can exist anywhere.
Borges’ cosmic literary concepts cannot be held in a museum. Yes, the Centro Cultural Borges does a good job of commemorating his life, but it’s also a platform for other artists. To find Borges, I needed to weave my way through my own labyrinth, not only visiting scheduled places, but asking around, getting lost and discovering the city he loved.
Other places to visit on the Borges trail
- Cafe Tortoni: oldest cafe in the city. It has a wax statue of Borges sitting in a chair. Located on Avenida de Mayo near the corner of Suipacha.
- El Preferido: opened in the 1950s, Borges mentions it in one of his poems. Located on the corner of Jorge Luis Borges and Guatemala, it’s become a famous restaurant because of its ties to Borges. The place remains much like it did during Borges time (minus the English menu). It’s the pink building, which dates back to the 19th century.
- Jorge Luis Borges International Foundation: Run by Borges’ widow, Maria Kodama, the foundation has several of Borges first edition books in several languages. But, you can only visit the foundation by appointment and its hours are 9:30am-2pm daily. Located at Anchorena 1660 in Recoleta.