How do you begin a story? One can hardly do better than Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl.” The tale opens with a three-sentence paragraph of perfect limpidness, but also total obscurity.
There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.*
Three sentences, and three sentences only. Why? The brief paragraph sets up a dynamic contrast between two elements: the narrator and the creature he becomes. The third element is what allows for the transformation: the narrator’s patient observation of the axolotls and the process of identification and mirroring that leads up to metamorphosis. Each sentence stands for one of these three steps in a process, as rigorous as a dialectical exercise, but with an impossible, magical outcome.
Like “Axolotl,” many of Cortázar’s stories involve a metamorphosis: crossing over into the image, trading places with another, fiction becoming reality, reality fiction. In “Axolotl” there is also the question of the alien, the radically other, the impossibility of comprehending complete and utter strangeness. Cortázar always manages to convey such challenging issues with graceful charm and humor. But horror is never far off, as in Bolaño. Why? Perhaps because the transformation, the crossing over, the shift from reality to fiction and back, the obsession with the alien, are so many ways of rendering the inconceivable metamorphosis of life into death. Almost always with a stunning abruptness, as in “Now I am an axolotl.” Cortázar lets us make that passage with a feeling of haunted delight: “There was nothing strange in what happened.”
* Julio Cortázar, “Axolotl,” in End of the Game and Other Stories, Paul Blackburn, trans.(New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 3.