The world of literature is full of stories in which the protagonist undergoes a metamorphosis changing from one state to another. This may be a change from a human to an animal state, or from human to a spirit, or even any fantastical object that the author creates. The change may happen at any stage of the story, but when it does, it usually marks a climax and a turning point of the hero’s life. This essay scrutinizes the metamorphosis of the narrator in Julio Cortazar’s Axolotl into an axolotl. The essay is built on the thesis that the protagonist’s possessiveness over the axolotls is an implication of readiness and acceptance to immerse himself deeper into their world, hence leading to his metamorphosis.
Axolotl appeared first in Final Del gauge in 1964. The story begins with an announcement from the narrator that he has already metamorphosed into an axolotl. Therefore, the story is told in a flashback mode telling how the transformation occurred. The narrator begins by stating that he was fond of lions and panthers which he used to watch at the Paris gardens (Cortázar 82). However, he grew bored of watching the sad lions and decided to have a change of routine and went to the aquarium. Although the fish in the aquarium were captivating, his attention was caught by the axolotls and, after an hour of observing them, he could not think of anything else. Later, the narrator spent some time researching on the creatures and found out that axolotls are the larvae of Mexican salamanders. They can be edible and, at one time, they were used for medical purposes. The narrator states, “he discovered that specimens of the axolotls were discovered in Africa and were able to live both on dry land and in water, alternating in the dry and wet seasons (Cortázar 82)”. However, the narrator did not rely on the specialized information on the creatures; but, instead, he decided to conduct his own study of these creatures that had “little pink Aztec faces” (Cortázar 82). As the narrator stared at the faces that were pressed against their glass enclosure, he felt almost ashamed. There were nine specimens in the group. He focused on one of them and noted golden eyes, the translucent rosy body of about six inches in length, and a fragile tail (Cortázar 83). The narrator’s observations concentrated on colors and shapes as he studied his first subject. He tells that axolotl’s foot appeared thin and detailed “ending in small fingers that looked like small human tails” (Cortázar 83). The narrator adds that the golden eyes were ringed by a black halo and suggested an interior that was not only inviting, but mysterious. The eyes of the axolotl stood out in contrast to the creature’s pink flesh as did the triangular head and mouth. He further notes that the position where one might have expected ears were “three tiny springs red as coral” that regularly stiffened and relaxed (Cortázar 83).
The minute and regular movement belied the axolotl’s relative immobility was explained by the narrator when he spoke as an axolotl stating: “It’s that we do not like being mobile nor is it due to the fact that the tank is cramped. The reason is that we do not move in any direction and while we hit each other with our tails or heads in this tank, and in doing so, quarrels, fights, and weariness arise” (Cortázar 83). The lack of motion suggests peace which captured the attention of the narrator to the creatures. In their lethargy, the narrator perceived the likelihood of a different kind of life and an extra way of seeing in their eyes (MacNab 18). Focusing on the triangular-faced head and small eyes, the narrator concluded that the creatures “were not animals” (Cortázar 84). The narrator’s imagination took hold of his thoughts, and, by way of gazing, he heard the axolotls communicate something like “save us, save us” (Cortázar 84). Although the narrator struggled to understand the existence of the axolotls, to him, the creatures were not animals nor were they really human beings. Their Aztec faces suggested both disguise and cruelty as they compelled him with their penetrating eyes. The narrator’s fear was for a short time expelled by the company of other visitors and the guard (Cortázar 84). The fear experienced by the narrator actually stemmed from the realization that the axolotls were consuming him bit by bit with their golden-eyed gaze. Cortazar’s protagonist quickly abandoned the brief mention of other human beings who were present in the aquarium (MacNab 19). He visited daily, and his fear was replaced by recognition of the axolotl’s pain and suffering. In the end, the narrator metamorphosed into an axolotl. He notes: “So there was not anything peculiar with what took place. My face was pushed next to the glass of the aquarium; my eyes were trying to go through the secrecy of those golden eyes neither iris nor pupil. I saw my face alongside the glass. I saw it on the outer side of the tank and on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back, and I comprehended” (Cortázar 84). Momentarily, the narrator became both the visitor in the aquarium staring into gawking into the glass tank and an axolotl that peeped outside the aquarium to the visitor. At first, the experience similar to being buried alive consumed the double voice of the narrator (MacNab 20). He felt condemned to live in two worlds as he had the pink body of the axolotl, yet he retained his human thoughts. However, at the stroke of an additional axolotl’s tiny foot, the storyteller realized that he was one of the axolotls looking at the visitors with its golden eyes. At this stage, Cortazar’s narrative splits the character into two using both ‘he’ and ‘I’ to distinguish the entities (Cortázar 85). The visitor becomes mum, while voice was handed to the axolotl.
The metamorphosis of the protagonist is completed as the narrator states: I suppose that all this succeeded in passing an important message to him in the pioneering days, when I was still he. In addition, in this last loneliness to which he no longer comes, I comfort myself by assuming that he will write a story concerning us, believing he is creating a story he is going to create the story about axolotls (Cortázar 85). As seen in this narrative by Cortazar, the narrator is not just a character in the tale; he is also somehow both ‘subject’ and ‘object’ of the transformation speaking both as human and as axolotl. Immediately following the first statement that frames the course of the tale, the narrative voice assumes its original human identity and proceeds to recount by flashback the story of how the transformation occurred (MacNab 21). Thereafter, up to the moment of transmigration, the narrative first person is linked mainly to the human narrator prior to the metempsychosis, while the third person refers to the axolotls (Cortázar 85). There are important exceptions, however: at several empathetic moments, while describing the lamentable plight of axolotls in the aquarium, the narrator slips into the first person plural being clearly identified with and speaking as one of the axolotls. He says, “I saw the diminutive toes poise lightly on the moss. It’s that we don’t like moving around much, and the tank is so cramped…time is less noticeable if we stay quiet” (Cortázar 85). The curious zigzagging of narrative voice between human and axolotl continues up to the key moment of transmigration when the flashback rejoins the narrative present (Bennet 61). From then on, the first person corresponds to the axolotl, the third person now refers to the human being who, estranged from his former obsession, returns only rarely and with diminishing interest to visit the axolotls (Bennet 61). In essence, Axolotl is an illustration of the shocking process undergone by the protagonist as he is gradually more absorbed in the axolotl’s mind and, at long last, he denounces his human life and takes that of an axolotl. As mentioned earlier, the story is told in a flashback and juxtaposes the narrator’s hindsight as he tries to capture a detailed illustration of the images and motion linked to his relationship with the axolotls (Bennet 62). The narrator offers a justification of his frequent visits to the aquarium to see the axolotls by citing that “even before be become one, he had known that [they] were linked” (Cortázar 86). The narrator focuses on the power of this link through the description of the inert and apparently compulsory method by which he had been “detained [since] that first morning” (Cortázar 86). On the contrary, his possessiveness over the axolotls is an implication of readiness and acceptance with which he immerses deeper into their world. In conclusion, the border between humans and axolotls is unclear to a great degree in Axolotl. This happens both physically and metaphysically. For example, Cozartar compares the axolotl to a Chinese figurine. This resembles a human being. The narrator also illustrates the axolotl as having eyes and fingers like those of human beings. In addition, he also gives the axolotl other traits that are found in human beings such as being secretive, indifferent, and even judgmental. Basically, the axolotl is illustrated as having anthropomorphic features; no wonder the narrator concludes, “they are not animals.” Nevertheless, the narrator also adds that the creatures “…are not human beings”. He, therefore, concludes that the transition that occurs is not of the axolotls changing to human beings, but that of the creatures failing in “revoking humanity”