‘Axolotl’ by Julio Cortazar, translated by Paul Blackburn

This is one of the strangest stories I have ever read, and I am haunted by it. It has possibly the greatest opening paragraph ever:

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.

With subtle shifts of perspective – from first to third person – Cortazar delineates a scenario in which reality is gently turned inside out. It won’t harm the reading of the story to say that we end with the narrator in the aquarium, an axolotl, paradoxically watching himself peering through the glass at the axolotls. This might be an account of over-identification or madness, or it might be a story about something much stranger, a kind of transference or metamorphosis. We will never know. We have only questions and possibilities. The effect is deeply unsettling.

First published in Spanish in Litereria, 1952 and collected in Final del Juego. First published in English in End of the Game, Pantheon, 1967 and collected in Blow Up and Other Stories, Pantheon, 1985

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