The grave of Borges in the Cemetery of the Kings at Plainpalais, with its headstone inscriptions in Anglo-Saxon and old Norse, has become a place of literary pilgrimage. Berger visited the Plainpalais grave some 15 years ago as Iraq was being torn to pieces and re-built as a temporary ‘democratic’ shell that has been falling violently apart ever since.
Berger mentions the destruction of Iraq in an essay entitled Genève, part of his collection Here Is Where We Meet (2005). Without making a big issue of it, Berger contrasts Geneva’s perennial quiet with what was happening to people at that time in the Middle East. The piece explains the secret of the shrub on the writer’s grave, the story behind its headstone inscriptions, why a star soprano from The Grand Theatre was imitating a starling on the streets of Geneva in the baking sunshine (and perhaps was applauded for her efforts). “The only other European town whose natural situation may be as breath-taking is Toledo,” he writes. The Genevois “frequently get bored with their town, fondly bored”, he observes, but they seldom leave for good.
Borges himself said he had been “mysteriously happy” in Geneva and regretted writing harshly of the city and his formative teen years here at what is now the Collège Calvin. For his part, Berger describes Geneva as “sexy and secretive” — not the first words most people would use, but the English writer fixes the city’s puzzling charm in the feeling residents get that “nothing she hears or witnesses shocks her”. Its insatiable curiosity is not that of a nosy gossip. “Genève” — for Berger the city is teasingly feminine, at least in his imagination — “is an observer, fascinated by the sheer variety of human predicaments and consolations”.
Berger finds Geneva “as contradictory and enigmatic as a living person”. Nothing else I’ve read captures the city’s bland seductiveness that still bewitches many international civil servants with its imperturbability decades after they came here for what they imagined would be short-term assignments. Geneva’s secret passion, he further suggests, is for recording what has been put aside (and not just committee reports and speeches). In Argentina, Berger notes, while Director of the National Library, Borges too used his imagination to become “the tireless collector of put-aside objects, torn tell-tale notes, mislaid fragments”.
Genève is a narrative tour de force, as we have come to expect from Berger, in a completely different register from the tightly woven pieces that characterize Borges’ writings. But their differences, though deep, do not disguise the instinctive solidarity and empathy that the left-wing poet of the working poor shows for the deeply conservative aristocrat.
Berger remarks that Borges in life was “scandalously or grievously lost in politics”. He met Pinochet in Chile at the height of the Rightist killings and described the dictator as “an excellent person”. Borges was also made a Knight Commander of the British Empire. A Chilean poet and translator achieved notoriety with a photo apparently showing him urinating on Borges’ grave in protest at the Argentinian’s politics. It was later revealed that the offending liquid was just water.
In contrast, Berger, who is the last person you would expect to accept ennoblement, was a self-proclaimed Marxist for decades and published a collection of essays entitled Permanent Red. As part of his personal convictions, his writings renounce all the conventional literary tricks and fabulations that are superficially impressive to reviewers. It makes Berger hard for critics to position as a member of any school.
But Borges’ description of his art in later life could easily apply to Berger: “I have done my best,” Borges asserts in the Preface to Dr Brodie’s Report, “to write straightforward stories. I am not, nor have I ever been, a fabulist. I have given up the surprises inherent in a baroque style.”
So Berger paints for us a Geneva in high summer when his daughter suggested they visit the grave together. The few pedestrians are mainly the elderly, moving like sleepwalkers over the pavement. The tightly packed streets south of the Rhône, he writes, face each other as if they are library shelves of hidden lives, and their varnished doors gleam like the front of drawers.
The essay retains its magic and remains inexhaustible no matter how much you quote from it. A 15-minute read, its few thousand words tell us much more about Borges, his secrets, the city, its people (local and foreign), motorcycling, the realities of peasant life, Borges’ relationship with his father silently contrasting with Berger’s friendship with his own daughter, and a trip inside the Grand Theatre that most of us will never take, plus a brilliant definition of music – all in an unbuttoned style that never comes off as forced or formulaic.
Berger’s insights also point outwards to Geneva’s many other secrets. The Plainpalais cemetery, for example, created in 1482, is named after the Rue des Rois on which it is found. The kings in this fiercely republican city are not nobles and this is not their graveyard. The kings are the winners of an annual archery competition that was staged by the city’s professional guild of arquebusiers, who used the land for their training. The hackbut society, founded in 1474, still flourishes.
Today the cemetery is also dubbed Geneva’s Pantheon, but in fact the graveyard started as a burial ground for plague victims and was the only cemetery to survive Calvin’s purges because it was outside the city walls. The cemetery is now officially restricted to people who do Geneva honour (and its magistrates!). Nevertheless, its 300 graves include that of the activist prostitute Grisélidis Réal (who died in 2005) as well as Jean Calvin’s. You won’t find her on the official tally of notables on the city website. Dostoevsky’s daughter, however, makes the list. Secretive Geneva. But still secretly sexy.
For those who want answers to the puzzles at the grave, these words of Berger’s may help:
The “small-leafed, very dark green” shrub with berries that Berger found on Borges’s grave was Buxus sempervirens (boxwood), the Bosnian gardener told the English writer.
“I should have recognized it,” Berger says. “In the villages of the Haute-Savoie one dips a sprig of this plant into holy water to sprinkle blessings for the last time on the corpse of the loved one laid out on the bed. It became a holy plant because of a shortage. On Palm Sunday there were never enough willow leaves available in the region, and so the Savoyards started to use the evergreen box instead.”
Wikipedia reports that three burials dating back to the Roman era in Britain feature coffins lined with sprays of the evergreen box, “a practice unattested elsewhere in Europe”. The evergreen may be the hardest wood growing in Europe, but some people, like Queen Anne, find its scented foliage offensive. It was once used as a fever reducer. Though found in southern Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia, and locally naturalized in parts of North America, it seems not to be an Argentinian plant.
Mike Culpepper of British Columbia reports on his website that the headstone seems to have been mostly the design of its sculptor Eduardo Longato and vaguely has the shape of a rune stone. The face with warriors in armour echoes the Lindisfarne gravestone, which apparently depicted the Vikings who sacked the monastery. Borges in his Geneva youth read Icelandic sagas in William Morris’s translation and learned Old Norse.
The inscription on the front reads “and ne forhtedon na”, a quote from an Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon” which Borges translated and often discussed, Culpepper tells us. It means “Be not be afraid”. It comes from a Viking chief’s words to some doomed young warriors.
The back of the stela shows a Viking ship, which, Culpepper notes, is associated with death in Norse sagas and may be derived from a Gotland runestone. Above it is a line from a Norse saga, which translates as: “He took the sword Gram and laid the naked metal between them”. Underneath the ship we can see the words “De Ulrica a Javier Otàrola”
“Ulrikka and Javier are characters in the Borges story ‘Ulrikka’ which is prefaced by the earlier lines from the Volsunga Saga. The story is about the romance between a young Norwegian woman and an older man,” Culpepper reveals.
Ulrikka “was the name Borges lent [his young student, secretary and, eight weeks before he died, his wife Maria] Kodama, and Javier the name she lent him,” Berger writes.
Culpepper adds: “In Argentina she was not legally married to Borges. She spoke of herself not as Borges’ widow, but his ‘love’, which also drew some criticism.”
Berger writes of riding a motorcycle with his daughter up to the Col de la Faucille immediately after visiting the cemetery. “I remembered how she had recently quoted Zeno of Elea in an SMS message to me: What is in motion is neither in the space where it is, nor in the space where it isn’t; for me that is a definition of music.”
John Berger’s Here is where we meet is available from Bloomsbury Paperbacks or Amazon (including a Kindle edition). His “dispatches on survival and resistance”, Hold everything dear, is being reprinted in a new edition by Verso for his 90th birthday. Berger died on 2 January 2017 near Paris.
Peter Hulm is a reporter and editor based in the Geneva region. He teaches communications at universities here and is a specialist in postmodern cultural theory. His teaching website is StepWiser.net