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Argentine Author Faces Prison Sentence for “Plagiarising” Borges in Literary Experiment

 
The AlephnullArgentine novelist, poet and university lecturer Pablo Katchadjian faces up to six years in prison, after his literary experiment involving Jorge Luis Borges’ The Aleph.

The lawsuit was initiated by Maria Kodama, Borges’ widow and guardian of the Borgesian literary estate.

Almost 3 000 writers, intellectuals and other supporters have signed an open letter protesting the prosecution of Katchadjian, and a public demonstration is due to take place tonight (3 July 2015), at the National Library in Buenos Aires, which Borges ran from 1955-73.

The Guardian explains the irony of the case:

In the short story Pierre Menard: Author of Quixote, Jorge Luis Borges writes of an author’s quest to reproduce Cervantes’ masterpiece, word by word, comma after comma. “Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough – he wanted to compose the Quixote,” Borges writes.

More likely than not to be aware of this Borgesian playfulness, Argentine author Pablo Katchadjian decided in 2009 to remix one of Borges’s most renowned short stories The Aleph, keeping the original text but adding a considerable amount of his own writing. The result was the short experimental book called El Aleph engordado (The Fattened Aleph), published by a small underground press in a short run of 300 copies. An unfortunate consequence of Katchadjian’s literary experiments is an ongoing lawsuit initiated in 2011 by Maria Kodama, Borges’s widow and fervent guardian of his literary estate.

Press release:

Argentine novelist, poet and university lecturer Pablo Katchadjian is being prosecuted for “intellectual property fraud” on the basis of his 2009 short experimental book El Aleph Engordado (The Fattened Aleph). The criminal lawsuit has been brought by Maria Kodama, widow of the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges and guardian of the Borgesian literary estate. Katchadjian’s assets have been frozen and he could face up to six years in prison if found guilty.

PEN International believes that the criminal prosecution of Katchadjian is a disproportionate reaction to a literary experiment and is calling for the criminal charges against him to be dropped.

Background

Katchadjian (born 1977) is the critically acclaimed author of 10 books, including the novels Gracias (Thanks), La libertad total (Total Freedom) and Qué hacer (What to do – an English translation of which is reportedly forthcoming from Dalkey Archive, USA). His work has been translated into English, French and Hebrew. An opera adaptation of La libertad total was reportedly performed in Buenos Aires in 2014. Katchadjian is also a lecturer at the social sciences faculty of the University of Buenos Aires.

The lawsuit against Katchadjian was brought in 2011 on the basis that El Aleph Engordado – which takes Borges’ well known short story El Aleph and “fattens” it by adding some 5,600 words of his own to Borges’ original 4,000 – amounted to plagiarism. The charges are based on an archaic intellectual property law (Law 11.723 of 1933, Article 71), which along with the Argentine Penal Code (Article 172), establishes that those found guilty of such fraud can face between one month and six years’ imprisonment.

El Aleph Engordado was published in 2009 by Imprenta Argentina de Poesía, a small independent press, in a print run of 200 copies, most of which were reportedly given away to friends. In a postscript to El Aleph Engordado dated 1 November 2008, Katchadjian makes it clear that the preceding text is his expansion of Borges’ El Aleph. According to Katchadjian, the book was out of print well before the lawsuit was filed and there was never any intention to reprint it; nor was there an official digital edition. There was therefore no intention on his part to pass Borges’ text off as his own or, apparently, to make a profit.

The lawsuit against Katchadjian was initially dismissed by a court of first instance after his lawyer, Ricardo Straface, also a writer, successfully argued that his work was a “literary experiment” and that there can only be “intellectual property fraud” if the author has been deceitful. At this point the Attorney General’s office (Ministerio Público) withdrew from the case, indicating that it did not believe that a crime had been committed. The ruling was confirmed on appeal.

However, Kodama took the case to a higher (appellate) court, which was reportedly not convinced that Katchadjian had differentiated the original text from his own additions, and ordered the first instance court to review its decision. (In the postscript to El Aleph Engordado, Katchadjian clarifies that: “Although I didn’t try to hide behind Borges’ style, nor did I write with the intention of making myself too visible. It seems to me that the best moments are those where you don’t know for sure what belong to whom.”)

Compelled by the ruling of the appellate court, on 18 June 2015, Katchadjian was formally charged with “intellectual property fraud” by the same judge who had originally dismissed the case. The appeals court also froze his assets, imposing an 80,000 peso (c. US$8,800) embargo on his property. Katchadjian’s lawyer has appealed the decision.

Almost 3,000 writers, intellectuals and other supporters from Argentina and beyond have signed an open letter protesting the prosecution of Katchadjian, including César Aira and Carlos Gamerro. A public demonstration is due to take place tonight (3 July 2015), at the National Library in Buenos Aires – of which Borges was director from 1955-73.

Although the lawsuit against Katchadjian is not thought to be politically motivated, a conviction would have far-reaching implications for literary freedom and creativity in Argentina and beyond. According to an article in the UK Guardian by the Argentine writer and critic Fernando Sdrigotti, “the real issue in the Katchadjian case is not literary integrity but financial value, and it is not about protecting Borges’s oeuvre, as the plaintiff claims.” Sdrigotti adds: “it seems unlikely that Katchadjian will actually end up in prison, but the implications of taking writers to court over creative acts are chilling.”

Katchadjian’s supporters point out the irony of a writer being accused of copying Borges, a writer known for his fascination with the reproducibility of the classics and literary forgery. Commentators on the case have alluded to Borges’ short story ‘Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote’ which imagines a fictional French author’s quest to recreate Cervantes’ masterpiece.

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Image courtesy of Los Inrocks

 

Recent comments:

  • Zakes
    Zakes
    July 5th, 2015 @20:06 #
     
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    This is utter rubbish. Intertextuality of this nature is acceptable practice. Otherwise the British establishment would be accusing JM Coetzee of plagiarism for his novel Foe, a wonderful work of intertextuality drawing from Daniel Defoe's biography and from Defoe's novels Roxanne and Robinson Crusoe. Plagiarism is theft. A plagiarist takes someone else's work and pass it off as his/her own. In intertextuality the writer creates a new text openly based on an original text by another author (eg from Oedipus Rex we have OlaRotimi's The Gods are not to Blame); sometimes to expound on it or to reinterpret it or even to take it in another direction or reinforce the new text. You actually appreciate the new text more when you know the original text on which it is based. To fully appreciate Foe it serves you well to read Roxanne and Crusoe, and also to know something of Defoe's biography. Coetzee did not steal those texts hoping no one will notice. That would be plagiarism. He wants you to notice. That is intertextuality.

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