By Jason Wilson
Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda was one of the most important figures in the promotion of the written word not only in his native Colombia but also in the Spanish republic of letters. He had the rare talent of being an insightful critic of Latin American poetry (something arduous in any language). One year after his death, Professor Jason Wilson offers us this exclusive and commemorative note of the man and his times
I first met Juan, known as Cobo, when he ran a great bookshop, Librería Buchholz, in Bogotá in 1970. The Argentine poet José Viñals, with whom I was staying, took me there to meet him. Cobo was a huge young man with a fearsome reputation of having read everything. We got on well. I re-met him in Buenos Aires, when he was working as the cultural attaché in the Colombian embassy and through his relationship with Ricardo Herrera, getting to know Argentine poets. We once met for lunch in a traditional restaurant called La Mosca Blanca at the side of the Retiro station. He ordered a vast milanesa. I have never seen anyone eat so much. Did he read like that, omnivorously? He would recite poets at the drop of a hat, knowing reams of poems by heart. He would dance and flirt and was entirely spontaneous. I liked his sarcastic poems, with much irony and humour. They were easy to read and understand at a first reading. He was also a good love poet. He once dedicated a poem about André Breton to me
I also saw him in London, where he was always joking and fun. He arrranged an evening on García Márquez in The British Library, on whom he had written a kind of easy-going travel book Para Llegar a García Márquez. That evening was crowned by his inviting a recitador along. He was the last editor of Eco, an excellent, long-lasting, literary magazine, funded by Karl Buchholz in 1931. He lived his poetry, always greedy and overweight, with a large panza. He liked organizing collections. I was involved with one on Latin American poetry, where I wrote on what happened to Latin American poetry after surrealism. He edited an excellent anthology of Latin American poetry in 1984 where he tested every poet in a vast array. He also edited a collection of Colombian classics called Biblioteca Familiar Colombiana and he handed me several volumes. A memorable day out in Buenos Aires was a trip with Cobo to the sprawling cattle auction market at Liniers. with a din of death bellows and throbbing lorries with trailers waiting to deliver their cattle for auction where he knew an ex-boxer who worked with the ashes of the 17000 cattle slaughtered that day. He also took me to a posh launch of Paz’s magazine Vuelta in The German Club in Buenos Aires. But I guessed his health would not last. He married Griselda, an Argentine and had a daughter called Paloma. Then we lost touch.
I learnt of his death through a Colombian poet in London, Juan Toledo. I was shocked. Did he follow the same fate as Nicanor Parra, who didn’t merit an obituary in the UK? What will happen to his vast library? I am left with his poetry books, his Poesía Reunida of 2012 and letters, but no photos nor many personal insights. He was obviously well born, used to dining out and a regular at parties where he would suddenly dance, sing a bolero or tango or recite some lines. He was a natural diplomat, happy in a suit, and ended up as Ambassador in Greece. He knew all the poems I could half remember and could recite them well and was into pop culture as well as recovering marginal poets. He had something of a Botero figure, paternal, generous, well soigné and ironic. He preserved the freshness of his childhood. or like his title ‘Roncando al sol como una foca en las Galápagos’ (Snoring in the sun like a seal in the Galápagos’) where he talks about the ‘modorra’ (‘drowsiness’) of the senses, or when he refers to ‘acaricio senos desnudos de toda culpa’ (‘I caress breasts, stripped of all guilt’), no Marxist or French theory, just direct joy in the body. Cobo was always fun to be with.
Jason Wilson is an Emeritus Professor at University College, London. He has published numerous books, including Octavio Paz. A study of his Poetics (CUP, 1979, into Spanish in 1980, reprinted in 2009) and Octavio Paz (Twayne, 1986), Jorge Luis Borges (Reaktion Books and Chicago University Press, 2006, translated into Portuguese 2009, Chinese, 2011 and Turkish 2011), A Companion to Pablo Neruda. Evaluating the Poetry (Tamesis, 2008 and paperback, 2014), He has edited and translated Alexandre von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (Penguin Classics, 1995), His most recent publication is Living in the Sound of the Wind. A Personal Quest for W. H. Hudson, Naturalist and Writer from the River Plate (Constable, 2015, paperback 2016, into French 2018 and into Spanish, 2023, with Ateneo). He spends his time between London and Buenos Aires. He is currently writing on how he became a hispanist. This is his third article for Perro Negro