Keeping up his cultural optimism about Argentina in public, and spending ever more of his private and literary life in codexes and codicils, Babels and Babylons, lotteries and labyrinths, Borges postponed for some time the disagreeable realization that his country and his culture were turning against him. In the 1930s he took a bold position against the local version of fascism while simultaneously distrusting and even disliking the great cats of the Hispanic literary "left," Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca, both of whom paid notable visits to Buenos Aires. Williamson suggests persuasively that there was an element of sexual envy involved in this too. But no such considerations would have influenced Borges in the detestation he felt for Juan Perón, and the fear that he experienced as he witnessed the birth of a raw, localist populism. The foul genius of Peronism lay in its demagogic dexterity: it was at once anti-oligarchic, anti-Jewish, and anti-English. By persecutions large and small—he lost his job at a library; his mother and sister were briefly imprisoned; "elitist" magazines and clubs were peremptorily closed down—Borges became persuaded that the masses who applauded this kind of thing were not to be trusted. Every time Perón fell or was exiled, the crowd yelled for him to come back. And in the sordid figure of his whorish wife Eva (or "Evita") all the brothels and tango bars, all the popular culture of the city, allied to all the suspect machismo of the Martín Fierro ballad tradition, underwent a horrid mutation into the philistine, the greedy, and the cruel. Borges's story "Ragnarök," about false gods and the need to destroy them, is very probably derived from his contempt for the votaries of such idols.
Perón, like Franco and Salazar, survived the supposed defeat of fascism in the Second World War, and he kept on torturing Argentina with his revenant third and fourth acts, ultimately dying and then ruling by posthumous proxy through the cult of his dead wife and the actual agency of his second one, the charmless Isabel. At a point in the mid-1970s the armed forces decided to put a stop to all this, and to much else besides, by an employment of the mailed fist. So when I called on Jorge Luis Borges in his upstairs apartment, 6B at Calle Maipú 994, just off the Plaza San Martín, in December of 1977, the streets of the city were being prowled by death squads.
The inscription on Edgar Allan Poe's door at the University of Virginia—"Domus parva magni poetae" ("Small home of a great poet")—would have been almost perfectly apt for the tiny quarters in which Borges and his tireless mother had for so long resided. But, no less aptly, the place was lined and piled with volumes, and the blind old man seemed to know the location of every one of them. He liked my English voice, and asked me if I would do him the courtesy of reading aloud (I later discovered, without chagrin, that he did this to a lot of visitors). Pointing to where a Kipling anthology could be found, he asked me to begin with "Harp Song of the Dane Women." "And please, read it slowly. I like to take long, long sips."