As his dying wish, Borges requested the epitaph “He took the sword and laid the naked metal between them.” He asked this of María Kodama, his beautiful, younger wife and literary secretary, who had married Borges two months before he died, at the age of eighty-seven. He chose Geneva as the place of his passing: it was the city where he had spent his youth and where he now wanted to be buried.
One researcher described that epitaph as “a blue-steel symbol.” For him, the image of the blade was the key that would unlock the significance of Borges’s writing—the knife that divides Borges’s style from conventional literary realism—whereas for me, it seemed an extremely quiet and private confession.
The line was a quotation from a Norse saga. On the first night a man and a woman spent together (which, in this saga, was also to be their last), a sword was placed between them and left there until dawn. If that “blue-steel” blade was not the blindness that lay between the aging Borges and the world, then what was it?
Though I’d traveled to Switzerland, I didn’t visit Geneva. I had no strong desire to see his grave first-hand. Instead, I looked around the library of Saint Gall, which he would have found endlessly enrapturing had he seen it (I recall the rough feeling of the felt slippers that visitors were given in order to protect the thousand-year-old library’s floor), caught a boat at the wharf in Lucerne and floated through the valleys of ice-covered Alps until dusk.
I didn’t take any photographs. The sights were recorded only in my eyes. The sounds, smells and tactile sensations that a camera cannot capture in any case were impressed on my ears, nose, face and hands. There was not yet a knife between me and the world, so at the time this was enough.
The woman brings her hands together in front of her chest. Frowns, and looks up at the blackboard.
“Okay, read it out,” the man with the thick-lensed, silver-rimmed spectacles says with a smile.
The woman’s lips twitch. She moistens her lower lip with the tip of her tongue. In front of her chest, her hands are quietly restless. She opens her mouth, and closes it again. She holds her breath, then inhales deeply. The man steps back toward the blackboard and patiently asks her again to read.
The woman’s eyelids tremble. Like insects’ wings rubbing briskly together. The woman closes her eyes, reopens them. As if she hopes in the moment of opening her eyes to find herself transported to some other location.
The man readjusts his glasses, his fingers thickly floured with white chalk.
“Come on now, out loud.”
The woman wears a high-necked black sweater and black trousers. The jacket she’s hung on her chair is black, and the scarf she’s put in her big, black cloth bag is knitted from black wool. Above that somber uniform, which makes it seem as if she’s just come from a funeral, her face is thin and drawn, like the elongated features of certain clay sculptures.
She is a woman neither young nor particularly beautiful. Her eyes have an intelligent look, but the constant spasming of her eyelids makes this hard to perceive. Her back and shoulders are permanently drawn in, as though she is seeking refuge inside her black clothes, and her fingernails are clipped back severely. Around her left wrist is a dark purple velvet hairband, the solitary point of color on an otherwise monochrome figure.
“Let’s all read it together.” The man cannot wait for the woman any longer. He moves his gaze over the baby-faced university student who sits in the same row as the woman, the middle-aged man half hidden behind a pillar and the well-set-up young man sitting by the window, slouching in his chair.
“Emos, hemeteros. ‘My,’ ‘our.’ ” The three students read, their voices low and shy. “Sos, humeteros. ‘Your’ singular, ‘your’ plural.”
The man standing by the blackboard looks to be in his mid to late thirties. He is slight, with eyebrows like bold accents over his eyes and a deep groove at the base of his nose. A faint smile of restrained emotion plays around his mouth. His dark brown corduroy jacket has fawn-colored leather elbow patches. The sleeves are a bit short, exposing his wrists. The woman gazes up at the scar that runs in a slender pale curve from the edge of his left eyelid to the edge of his mouth. When she’d seen it in their first lesson, she’d thought of it as marking where tears had once flowed.
Behind thick, pale green lenses, the man’s eyes are fixed on the woman’s tightly shut mouth. The smile vanishes. His expression stiffens. He turns to the blackboard and dashes off a short sentence in Ancient Greek. Before he has time to add the diacritical marks, the chalk snaps and both halves fall to the floor.
Late spring of the previous year, the woman had herself been standing at a blackboard, one chalk-dusted hand pressed against it. When a minute or so had passed and she was still unable to produce the next word, her students had started to shift in their seats and mutter among themselves. Glaring fiercely, she saw neither students, nor ceiling, nor window, only the empty air in front of her.
“Are you okay, seonsaengnim?” asked the young woman with the curly hair and sweet eyes who sat at the very front of the class. The woman had tried to force a smile, but all that happened was that her eyelids spasmed for a while. Trembling lips pressed firmly together, she muttered to herself from somewhere deeper than her tongue and throat: It’s come back.
The students, a little over forty in number, looked at each other with raised eyebrows. What’s she up to? Whispered questions spread from desk to desk. The only thing she was able to do was to walk calmly out of the classroom. Exerting herself, she managed it. The moment she stepped out into the corridor, the hushed whispers became clamorous, as though amplified through a loudspeaker, swallowing the sound her shoes made against the stone floor.
After graduating from university the woman had worked first for a book publisher and then at an editorial and production company for a little over six years; and after that she spent close to seven years lecturing in literature at a couple of universities and an arts secondary school in and around the capital. She produced three collections of serious poetry, which came out at three- or four-year intervals, and for several years had contributed a column to a fortnightly literary review. Recently, as one of the founding members of a culture magazine whose title had yet to be decided, she’d been attending editorial meetings every Wednesday afternoon.
Now that it had come back, she had no choice but to abandon all such things.
There had been no indication that it might happen, and there was no reason why it should have happened.
Of course, it was true that she’d lost her mother six months previously, divorced several years earlier still, had eventually lost custody of her eight-year-old son, and it was coming on five months since he had moved in with her ex-husband, after a prolonged battle in the courts. The grey-haired psychotherapist she’d seen once a week because of insomnia after the boy’s departure couldn’t understand why she denied such clear causes.
No, she wrote, using the blank paper left out on the table. It isn’t as simple as that.
That was their final session. Psychotherapy conducted through writing took too long, with too much scope for misunderstanding. She politely turned down his proposal to introduce her to speech and language therapist. More than anything else, she lacked the finances to continue with such expensive treatment.
Copyright © 2023 by Han Kang. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.