Pablo Katchadjian, a respected Argentine novelist, poet and academic, faces up to six years in prison after being accused of ‘intellectual property fraud’. In 2009, he published a short experimental book entitled El Aleph engordado (‘The Fattened Aleph’). Katchadjian took Borges’s well-known short story ‘El Aleph’ and ‘fattened’ it by adding some 5,600 words to Borges’s original 4,000. In 2011, Maria Kodama, Borges’s widow and the guardian of his literary estate, brought a criminal lawsuit against Katchadjian in Buenos Aires.
Katchadjian, aged thirty-eight, is a critically acclaimed author of ten books, including the novels Gracias (‘Thanks’), La Libertad total (‘Total Freedom’) and Qué hacer (‘What to do’). His work has been translated into English, French and Hebrew. An operatic adaptation of La Libertad total was performed in Buenos Aires in 2014. Katchadjian is also a lecturer in social sciences at the University of Buenos Aires. Since June 2015, when Katchadjian was formally charged with ‘intellectual property fraud’, his assets have been effectively frozen as a result of an 80,000-peso (£5,665) embargo on his property imposed by the court.
When Kodama initially brought the lawsuit against Katchadjian in 2011, she claimed that El Aleph engordado amounted to plagiarism. The charges are based on an archaic intellectual property law which, together with the Argentine Penal Code, determines that those found guilty of such an offence can face between one month’s and six years’ imprisonment.
El Aleph engordado was published by Imprenta Argentina de Poesía, a small independent press. Katchadjian reportedly gave away most of the two hundred copies to friends. Before publication, on 1 November 2008, Katchadjian had written a postscript to El Aleph engordado claiming that his work was intended to be an expansion of Borges’s ‘El Aleph’. He stated: ‘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 belongs to whom.’
Katchadjian makes the point that the book was out of print well before the lawsuit was filed and that there was never any intention to reprint it; nor was there an official digital edition. He had no wish to pass Borges’s text off as his own or to make a profit. His lawyer, Ricardo Strafacce, also a writer, successfully argued that Katchadjian’s work was a ‘literary experiment’ and that there can be ‘intellectual property fraud’ only if the author has been deceitful. The Ministerio Público, which includes the attorney general’s office, agreed and withdrew from the case, indicating that it did not believe a crime had been committed. The lawsuit against Katchadjian was dismissed by a court of first instance and the ruling was confirmed on appeal.
Undeterred, Kodama took the case to a higher appellate court, which was not convinced that Katchadjian had sufficiently differentiated the original text from his own additions and ordered the first instance court to review its decision. On 18 June of this year, Katchadjian was formally charged with ‘intellectual property fraud’ by the same judge who had originally dismissed the case.
The literary fraternity, both in and outside Argentina, has expressed disbelief at the lawsuit. Almost three thousand writers, intellectuals and other supporters from Argentina and elsewhere, including César Aira and Carlos Gamerro, vice president of PEN Argentina, have signed an open letter protesting against Katchadjian’s prosecution. Many have commented on the bitter irony that a writer is being accused of copying Borges, who was himself fascinated by the reproducibility of the classics and literary forgery. Borges’s short story ‘Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote’, for example, was about a fictional French author’s quest to re-create Cervantes’s masterpiece. Writing in The Guardian, Argentine writer and critic Fernando Sdrigotti noted: ‘Those familiar with Borges’ oeuvre will recognise in “Pierre Menard …” the return of a number of his intellectual concerns: meta-literature, an obsession with reproducibility and the classics. And forgery – Borges is, after all, also famous for his use and abuse of fake quotes and forged literary references.’ A public demonstration took place on 3 July at the National Library in Buenos Aires – of which Borges was director from 1955 to 1973.
PEN Argentina believes the criminal prosecution of Argentine novelist, poet and university lecturer Pablo Katchadjian to be a disproportionate reaction to a literary experiment. Gamerro warns, ‘Rather than protect intellectual property rights, the mere threat of such retaliation risks casting the shadow of self-censorship over every creative mind. Even though the case is not politically motivated, it hands a tool to censors worldwide.’
Readers might like to send appeals protesting the criminal prosecution of Pablo Katchadjian for his story El Aleph engordado and calling on the Argentine authorities to revise their obsolete intellectual property laws.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Dr Julio Alak
Minister of Justice and Human Rights
C1041AAG Buenos Aires
HE Ambassador Alicia Castro
65 Brook Street
London W1K 4AH
Fax: +44 20 7318 1301
Alternatively, readers might like to sign the online open letter protesting the prosecution of Katchadjian by visiting alephengordado.blogspot.com.ar