Axolotl by Julio Cortázar, 1964

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by Julio Cortázar, 1964

The Jardin des Plantes is located near the Sorbonne in one of the oldest and most appealing neighborhoods of Paris, just along the Left Bank of the Seine. It is a place where Argentine author Julio Cortázar might well have spent an afternoon during his expatriate years, for it serves as the occasion for a story both sympathetic in its appreciation of the city's charms and foreboding in its essential loneliness. It is also subtlely unnerving in its combination of realistic and fantastic elements, especially as the joining of the two is virtually seamless.

Scarcely 2, 000 words in length, the story "Axolotl" (collected in Final de juego) is representative of magical realism, a South American style of fiction that introduces patently preposterous subjects and events in an offhand manner and then explores their natures in a closely detailed way. The title itself would be meaningful only to a marine biologist, and so the story's narrator takes time to look up the name in a library: "axolotls are the larval stage (provided with gills) of a species of salamander of the genus Ambystoma." Although he does not identify himself as Latin American, the narrator notes carefully that the creatures are Mexican in origin and Aztec in facial appearance. Where in the city—"one spring morning when Paris was spreading its peacock tail after a wintry Lent"—can they be seen? In the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes, where the narrator has begun his tale, advising that "there was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls," and revealing just two lines later in the story's first paragraph, "Now I am an axolotl."

The gap between the narrator's two confessions (of interest, of identity) create the space Cortázar's story must fill. That the action begins "by chance" makes its tone all the more effective, for terror disarms best when presented as happenstance (a feature of Poe's tales of the fantastic set in a Paris of a century and a half before). Justification for the ultimate transfer from human to beast can be found in the stylistics of the story's first page, where the narrator customarily uses the personal pronoun to identify the zoo's animals during his frequent visits: he gets off "my bike" to look at "my panther." But the big cats (whom he describes as "friends") are either asleep or looking sad (another anthropomorphic projection), so he drifts into the aquarium building, is bored with the fish, but "unexpectedly … hits it off with the axolotls."

Unable to think of anything else the narrator immerses himself in dictionary definitions and descriptions—a handy device to both educate and intellectually seduce his readers, for such seduction is what is happening to him as the axolotls command more and more of his attention. Even though his frequent visits confuse the aquarium guards, he returns to spend more and more time in front of the axolotl's tank. "There's nothing strange in this," he advises, "because after the first minute I knew we were linked." This is strange indeed, all the more so as the language and mood behind it take on a tone of compulsion, a confession that "something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together." He has looked up the creatures' Spanish name and related them to Aztecs, but other features remind him of Chinese glass figurines. His rapt attention is complemented with (and even justified by) the information he provides. Much as a casual browser can become caught up unsuspectingly in a random encyclopedia entry and the wealth of knowledge it contains, so too does the narrator let himself be figuratively devoured by the little aquatic beings (who are, his library research tells him, edible and productive of a fluid useable as cod-liver oil).

But how does he become an axolotl? For this Cortázar guides the reader through several careful stages. First his narrator picks one axolotl for study, its tiny hands and slim fingers (with almost human nails) suggesting personal identity. With one such creature singled out and allowed to be itself, the narrative's motion becomes the animal's own, the minuscule motion of its gills described with the attention usually given only to matters of great scope and importance. And at this point the personal pronoun makes its almost subliminal reappearance: "It's that we don't enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped." Yet the axolotl's barest movement has been noted, and that close notation has made the center of perception the axolotl's own.

Close study also breeds a philosophical fascination, a perception of the animal's "secret will to abolish space and time with indifferent immobility." The eyes, so physically different from those of human beings, "spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing." These eyes know more than he does; they know that, despite all claims to the contrary, they are not animals, but just another order of sentience the narrator has learned to share.

A subsequent paragraph debates mythological propositions but dismisses them. Instead, an identification of being (and not just allusion) has taken place. Nor is there a simple, common explanation in psychology, that "my own sensibility was projecting a nonexistent consciousness upon the axolotls," for that would be the device of traditional and not magical realism, an excuse for everything fabulous that has transpired.

By the story's end the narrator is speaking, as always, with his face to the glass—only now it is inside, looking out at the human being who comes each day to visit. The window and its reflective nature make this transfer mechanically possible, just as the structural situation of a human staring at the animals staring at the human creates an infinitely replicable narrative. That there can be closure to this method is grammatical: the last paragraph begins with the pronoun "He" to describe the visitor while the "I" is not just an animal but an animal that can wonder if "perhaps he is going to write a story about us"—a plural form that includes both animals and human being—"that, believing he's making up a story, he's going to write all this about axolotls."

—Jerome Klinkowitz