Axolotl by Julio Cortázar

This story was my introduction to the mad genius of Julio Cortázar. I've since read much more by Cortázar and reread this story many times too. I hope you enjoy!


Axolotl. Source: a-z-animals.

There was a time when I thought a lot about axolotls. I used to go see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes, and I would spend hours watching them, observing their motionlessness, their dark movements. Now I’m an axolotl.

Chance brought me to them one spring morning when Paris spread its peacock tail after the slow winter. I went down Port Royal boulevard, took St. Marcel and L’Hôpital, saw the greens among so much gray, and I thought of lions. I was a friend of the lions and panthers, but I’d never entered the humid and dark aquarium building. I left my bike against the bars and went to see the tulips. The lions were ugly and sad, and my panther slept. I opted for the aquarium, passed over the vulgar fish until coming unexpectedly upon the axolotls. I stayed an hour watching them, and I left incapable of anything else.

At the Saint-Geneviève library I consulted a dictionary and learned that axolotls are larval forms, provided with gills, of a species of frog of the genus Ambystoma. That they were Mexican, I already knew just by looking at them, at their little pink Aztec faces and the placard at the top of the aquarium. I read that some have been found in Africa, capable of living on earth during periods of drought, and that they continue their life in the water when the rainy season comes. I found their name in Spanish, ajolote, the mention that they’re edible, and that their oil was used (it said that it’s no longer used) like cod liver oil.

I didn’t care to consult specialized works, but I returned the next day to the Jardin des Plantes. I began to go every morning, sometimes in the morning and the afternoon. The keeper of the aquarium smiled perplexed when he’d receive my ticket. I would lean on the iron bar that bordered the aquariums and start watching them. There’s nothing strange in this because from the start I understood that we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant continued without a doubt unifying us. It had been enough for me to stop that first morning before the glass where some bubbles ran through the water. The axolotls piled on top of one another on the meager and paltry (only I could know how meager and paltry) stone and moss floor of the aquarium. There were nine of them and the majority rested their heads against the glass, looking with their gold eyes at those who drew near. Disturbed, almost ashamed, I felt impudent bringing myself before these silent and motionless figures bunched together in the depths of the aquarium. Mentally I isolated one of them off to the right and a bit separated from the others to study it better. I saw a little body, pink and almost translucent (I thought of Chinese milk glass statuettes), like a little 15-centimeter lizard, ending in a fish tail of extraordinary delicacy, the most sensitive part of our bodies. Down its back ran a transparent fin that fused with the tail, but what obsessed me were the feet, subtly fine, ending in tiny toes, in minutely human nails. And then I discovered its eyes, its face, two orifices like pin heads, made entirely of a transparent gold devoid of all life but watching, allowing itself to be penetrated by my gaze that seemed to pass through the aureate point and get lost in an interior diaphanous mystery. An extremely thin black halo surrounded the eye and inscribed them in the pink flesh, in the pink stone of the head, vaguely triangular but with curved and irregular sides, which gave it a total resemblance to a statuette corroded by time. The mouth was concealed by the triangular plane of the face, only from the profile could its considerable size be divined; from the front a fine crack barely scratched the lifeless stone. On both sides of the head, where there should have been ears, three red corral-like twigs were growing, a vegetal excrescence, the gills I suppose. And it was the only thing living in him, every ten or fifteen seconds the twigs grew rigidly erect and went down again. Sometimes a foot barely moved, the tiny toes perching gently on the moss. It’s just that we don’t like to move much, and the aquarium is so meager; we barely move up a little and we bump into the tail or head of another one of us; difficulties come up, fights, fatigue. We feel time less if we stay still.

It was their stillness that made me lean forward fascinated the first time I saw the axolotls. Darkly it seemed I could comprehend their secret will, abolishing space and time with an indifferent immobility. Later I knew better, the contraction of the gills, the tentative movements of their fine feet on the stones, the sudden swimming (a few of them swim with only the simple undulation of their bodies) proved to me that they were capable of evading this mineral torpor in which they passed entire hours. Their eyes above all else obsessed me. Next to them in the rest of the aquariums, diverse fish showed me the simple stupidity of their beautiful eyes resembling ours. The eyes of the axolotls told me of the presence of a different life, of another way of looking. Sticking my face to the glass (sometimes the keeper coughed uneasily) I tried to get a better look at the diminutive aureate points, that entrance to the infinitely slow and remote world of the pink creatures. It was useless tapping my finger on the glass, there wasn’t even the slightest reaction before their faces. The gold eyes continued burning with their sweet, terrible light; they continued watching me from a fathomless depth that gave me vertigo.

And yet they were close. I knew it before this, before becoming an axolotl. I knew it the day that I approached them for the first time. The anthropomorphic features of a monkey reveal, contrary to what most believe, the distance between them and us. The absolute lack of similarity between axolotls and humans proved to me that my recognition was valid, that I wasn’t relying on easy analogies. Just the little hands… But a little lizard also has hands like that, and it’s nothing like us. I think it was the head of the axolotls, that pink triangular form with little gold eyes. It looked and knew. It demanded. They weren’t animals.

It seemed easy, almost obvious, to fall into mythology. I started seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis that couldn’t nullify a mysterious humanity. I imagined them conscious, slaves of their body, infinitely condemned to an abyssal silence, to a desperate reflection. Their blind gaze, the expressionless and yet terribly lucid diminutive gold disc, penetrated me like a message: “Save us, save us.” I surprised myself mumbling words of comfort, transmitting puerile hopes. They kept watching me motionless; suddenly the pink twigs of the gills stiffened. In that instant I felt something like a deaf pain; maybe they saw me, caught my effort to penetrate the impenetrable of their lives. They weren’t human beings, but in no animal had I ever encountered such a profound relation with myself. The axolotls are like witnesses to something, and sometimes like horrible judges. I felt ignoble before them, there was such a frightful purity in those transparent eyes. They were larvas, but by larva I mean mask and also ghost. Behind those inexpressive and yet implacably cruel Aztec faces, what image awaited its hour?

I was afraid of them. I think if I hadn’t felt the closeness of other visitors and the keeper, I wouldn’t have dared staying alone with them. “You, you’re eating them with your eyes,” the keeper, who must have supposed I was a bit off-balance, told me laughing. He didn’t realize it was they who slowly devoured me with their eyes in a cannibalism of gold. Far from the aquarium I did nothing but think of them, it was as if they were influencing me from a distance. I came to be going every day, and at night I imagined them motionless in the dark, slowly advancing a hand that suddenly encountered another’s. Perhaps their eyes saw in the dead of night, and the day continued for them indefinitely. The eyes of the axolotls do not have lids.

Now I know that there was nothing strange, that it had to happen. Each morning as I leaned towards the aquarium the recognition was greater. They suffered, every fiber of my body reached that gagged suffering, that rigid torture in the depths of the water. They spied something, a remote kingdom annihilated, a time of freedom when the world had belonged to the axolotls. It wasn’t possible that such a terrible expression that finally vanquished the forced inexpressiveness on their stone faces, would not carry a message of pain, proof of that eternal condemnation, of that liquid hell they suffered. Futilely I wanted to prove to myself that my own sensibility projected a nonexistent conscience onto the axolotls. They and I knew. Therefore there was nothing strange in what happened. My face was pressed to the glass of the aquarium, my eyes tried one more time to penetrate the mystery of those gold eyes without iris and without pupil. I saw from up close the face of a motionless axolotl by the glass. Without transition, without surprise, I saw my face against the glass, instead of the axolotl I saw my face against the glass, I saw it outside the aquarium, I saw it from the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.

Only one thing was strange: to continue thinking as before, to know. To realize that was in the first moment like the horror of someone buried alive who awakes to their fate. Outside my face approached the glass again, I saw my mouth with lips pressed from the effort to comprehend the axolotls. I was an axolotl and I knew now instantly that no comprehension was possible. He was outside the aquarium, his thinking was a thinking outside the aquarium. Knowing him, being himself, I was an axolotl and I was in my world. The horror came–I knew it that same moment–from believing myself prisoner in the body of an axolotl, transmigrated to him with my thinking of a man, buried alive in an axolotl, condemned to move lucidly among senseless creatures. But that stopped when a foot came and brushed my face, when I barely moved to one side I saw an axolotl next to me, watching me, and I knew that also he knew, with no possible communication but so clearly. Or I was also in him, or we all thought like a man, incapable of expression, limited to the golden splendor of our eyes that watched the face of the man pressed to the aquarium.

He returned many times, but he comes less now. Weeks went by without him showing up. Yesterday I saw him, he watched me for a long time and left brusquely. It seemed to me not so much that he was interested in us, but that he obeyed a custom. Since the only thing I do is think, I could think a lot about him. It occurs to me that in the beginning we continue communicating, that he felt more than ever united with the mystery that obsessed him. But the bridges are cut between him and me because what was his obsession is now an axolotl, alien to his life as a man. I believe that in the beginning I was capable of returning to him in some way–ah, only in some way–and of keeping his desire to know us better alert. Now I am definitely an axolotl, and if I think like a man it’s only because all axolotls think like a man inside their image of pink stone. It seems to me that from all this I was able to communicate something to him in the first days, when I was still him. And in this final solitude, to which he no longer returns, it consoles me to think that perhaps he’s going to write about us, believing that imagining a story he’s going to write all this about the axolotls.


Mara as a terrifying dog-axolotl chimera

Terrifying AI-generated image of my dog Mara as an axolotl. Source: midjourney.

The story was originally published in Cortázar's short story collection Final del juego (End of the Game) in 1956. The original text is available here and elsewhere online.

Reflecting again on the first time I read this story back in Spanish class in high school, trying to articulate the "meaning" almost robbed it of its "something." But the clever use of language (rampant grammatical rule-breaking, changes in tense, and subtle narrative pronoun switches from "they" to "we") and the vibe (ooOOooOOOoo) really stuck with me for years. The close read required for the translation only deepened my appreciation. I hope I've captured some of its "something."

As I did with the Genjo Koan a couple weeks ago, I tried to keep the translation as close to the original as possible. I tried to preserve word/sentence order where I could unless it made the English unreadably awkward. Hopefully I succeeeded... I also tried to use English cognates for Spanish words when they existed and it made sense (e.g. "nullify" for "anular," and "diminutive points" for "los diminutos puntos," but "tiny toes" for "diminutos dedos" to preserve alliteration). Cortázar switches frequently between simple vernacular language and literary vocabulary. In these instances, I used less common English words to keep the feeling (e.g. "gold" for "de oro" and "dorado," but "aureate" for "áureo" which also means golden). Finally I left French words from the original untranslated (e.g. "Jardin des Plantes").

I consulted one English translation for tricky parts. I agreed with some of the translators choices and disagreed with others. I consulted the Dictionary of the RAE, Merriam Webster for those fancy English words, and the trusty but often mistaken Google Translate.

If you enjoyed this story and haven't already read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915) do so posthaste. If you're looking for more Cortázar, here are many more short stories in Spanish and in English. Some greats are: la noche boca arriba (the night face up), las babas del diablo (blow up, named after the 1966 film based on the story, literally the devil's drool), and casa tomada (house taken over). His masterpiece novel is Rayuela (Hopscotch), and I cannot recommend it enough.