Weirdfictionreview.com’s 101 Weird Writers: #3–Julio Cortázar

Examining the Strange Transformation of "Axolotl"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Weirdfictionreview.com will feature a different writer. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Julio Cortázar (1914 – 1984) was an Argentine writer who became an architect of what is known as the Latin American Literary Boom. A novelist, poet, playwright, and nonfiction writer, Cortázar also wrote many short stories, collected in Bestiario (1951), Final del juego (1956), and Las armas secretas (1959), among others. His entry point to the weird tale was the influence of surrealism. His fantastical stories almost always begin with a mundane reality into which unexplained strangeness intrudes. Cortázar’s work as a translator, including the stories of Poe, also influenced his fiction. Here, Larry Nolen has offered his own lucid insights on Cortázar and his classic story “Axolotl.”

– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”

***

Several stories in The Weird contain thematic similarities, to the extent that a thematic “arc” or thread winds its way through them.  Many of the stories share common influences, such as Arthur Machen or H.P. Lovecraft, while others use weird elements to explore common contemporary concerns.  Sometimes these connections are obvious, while at other times it may take several readings before they emerge.

Such is the case with an author I profiled earlier, Augusto Monterroso, and émigré  Argentine writer Julio Cortázar.  At first glance, “Mister Taylor” and “Axolotl” would not seem to be related, as the former is an explicit fable regarding the deleterious effects of American imperialism and the latter a story of transformation.  Yet when “Axolotl” is examined closely, elements complementary to those in Monterroso’s story emerge.

Take for instance the first paragraph, which sets up the transformation:

There was a time when I thought quite often about the Axolotl.  I used to go and see them in the aquarium of the Jardin des Plantes and remained for hours captivated, gazing at them, observing their immobility, their indistinct movements.  Now I, too, am an Axolotl.

The key here is not the stated transformation, but rather the observation and rapt gazing the narrator undertakes, an element Cortázar explores in depth throughout “Axolotl.”  One could read the story as a tale of dissociation and a descent into a symbolic schizophrenic state, especially with the ending paragraphs, namely the reference to the narrative “us” and the human “him.”  I, however, would posit that there is another, more political undertone to “Axolotl.”

Early in the story, the narrator goes from being merely fascinated with these perpetually larval-stage amphibians to looking up more and more information on them, including their Spanish name (ajolote).  As he returns to the Jardin des Plantes day after day, he begins to make comments such as these:

I would prop myself up on the railing in front of the tanks and set to study them.  There was nothing strange in this, because after the first minute I knew that we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant continued to unite us nevertheless.

***

And nevertheless they were close.  I knew it before this, before being an Axolotl.  I knew it the day I approached them for the first time.  Contrary to what most people think, the anthropomorphic features of a monkey reveal the distance that separates them from us.  The absolute lack of similarity between the Axolotl and a human being proved to me that my recognition was well founded, that I was not sustaining my theory with easy analogies.

***

The Axolotl were like witnesses to something, and at times like horrible judges.  I felt ignoble in front of them; there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes.  They were larvae, but ‘larva’ means mask and also specter.  Behind those Aztec faces, expressionless but of an implacable cruelty, what appearance awaited its hour?

Beyond this sense of obsessive madness lurks something else.  Notice the acuteness of self-identification with something alien to the narrator’s senses.  As the story progresses, he begins projecting a self-identification with them, with repeated references to their land of origin, Mexico, and through that to the Aztecs that ruled ere the Spanish arrived.  The narrator probably is mad  – the narrative seems to hint at an obsessive nature at the very least – and yet the passages quoted above could also be read as a metaphor for those who become so fascinated with an alien culture that they immerse themselves in it, to the point where they confuse their adopted culture with their native origins. This sense of alien acculturation, presented in “Axolotl” in an unstable fashion, is matched in several of Cortázar’s other stories and novels, which utilize the cultural issues that often affect émigrés to create surrealistic tales such as “La autopista del sur” (“The Southern Freeway”), “Casa tomada” (“A House Taken Over”), or his brilliant novel Rayuela (Hopscotch).

In these tales, Cortázar would often employ the inexplicable to explore the confusions of life.  In “A House Taken Over,” the aging brother and sister who dwell in seclusion in their grandparents’ home slowly sense that something is invading their closed-off living space, forcing them to flee or else succumb to it.  It is a slow, creeping horror that seeps through the narrative and into the thoughts of readers, but it is also closely related to xenophobia, that fear and hatred of others “contaminating” the “purity” of one’s culture.  “The Southern Freeway” is much more ambiguous, as it begins with an interminable traffic jam on a Kafkaesque scale.  As the passengers struggle to occupy themselves, their behavior toward each other begins to shift.  Some make love, others retreat as far as they can from everyone else.  Both it and “A House Taken Over” resemble “Axolotl” in how the narrative slowly intensifies as “reality” shimmers and fades away into a weird, surrealistic landscape where what is real and what are figments of the imagination merge into a hallucinogenic entity.

Through the hop-and-skip sections of his lauded “anti-novel,” Hopscotch, Cortázar traces the life of an Argentine émigré in Paris and his search for his one-time mistress, the Uruguayan he knows as “La Maga.”  Several of the concerns discussed above (self-identity, the sometimes violent collision of cultures, the blurred line between hallucination and reality) are addressed here.  Ultimately, for Cortázar the politics of identity and culture were never far from his thoughts or his writing.  In his protagonist, Horacio Oliveira, we see the embodiment of that searching, almost insane narrator of “Axolotl.”  His drifting through Paris and Buenos Aires in search for “La Maga” can also be read as a search for an elusive reality through life’s hallucinations, which the novel’s anti-structure serves to reinforce.  There are moments of quiet menace, similar to those of “A House Taken Over,” but then there are episodes where Oliveira’s quest appears to be more Quixotic than anything else.

Over the course of his thirty-five year writing career (1949-1984), Cortázar created some of the most powerful and memorable literature of the mid-20th century, utilizing the elements of culture collision, surrealism, self-identity, and the question of where reality ended and hallucinations began.  His use of unstable, yet keenly, even painfully aware narrators allowed him to create stories that utilized the inexplicable component of weird fiction to make statements about contemporary life that he could not otherwise do through realism alone.  Consider that for most of his adult life, Cortázar was a semi-political refugee (first from Péron’s government and later from the 1970s junta). In several of his stories, such as “Axolotl,” there are traces of this in regard to his narrators dealing with radical changes to their lives and how they identify with the world.  Cortázar delves deep into these protagonists’ psyches, and in doing so he reveals unsettling truths about how we view ourselves in relation to the often-mad world around us.  Sometimes, this is expressed through a loss of identity and separation from our past, as with the narrator in “Axolotl,” while in “A House Taken Over” it is a dreaded, possibly violent future that seems to be embodied in the metaphor of unnamed house invaders. Meanwhile, in the case of Hopscotch the very nature of one’s search for understanding is shown to be a symbol of an unraveling thread where the lines between reality and delusion are blurred.

Weirdness serves as a conduit for Cortázar to explore these elements in a framework that can be just as political as the works of his Guatemalan contemporary, Augusto Monterroso, although with a decidedly more subtle and ambiguous subtext. This in turn leads to stories that work on multiple levels and benefit from periodic re-reading.

10 replies to “Weirdfictionreview.com’s 101 Weird Writers: #3–Julio Cortázar

  1. I couldn’t work this into the essay without it being a noticeable intrusion, but the new translation done by Gio Clairval is very well done and I believe the first authorized English translation since Cortázar’s passing almost 30 years ago. Just thought this addendum might be of some interest to a few reading this article who have read this story before in the prior English translation.

  2. Oh I love what Cortazar I’ve read – ‘House Taken Over’ is one of my favourite stories (I recently blogged about it in my ‘strange stories’ series and got the story at least one new fan judging from the comments) and ‘The Axolotl’ is also very fine. I haven’t got to the new translation of it in The Weird yet, but looking forward to revisiting it.

    Great article; thank you. Reminds me I must buy ‘Hopscotch’ soon…

  3. One of my favorite writers, much as House Taken Over is one of my favorite stories. I agree HTO can be read with a political subtext (and much of Cortazar is of course political), but there also seems to be an incest subtext, apparently (if I remember correctly) influenced by Cortazar’s complicated feelings towards his own sister.

    It’s a shame he’s not better known. He’s one of those writers, like Robbe-Grillet, another favorite, who seem to not be spoken about as much as they once were. Hopefully, your essay will rouse some new readers.

    A good starting place for Cortazar is his collection Blow-Up and Other Stories, previously titled End of the Game and Other Stories, issued by Pantheon Books in 1967 with a translation by Paul Blackburn. It includes Axolotl and House Taken Over, mentioned in your piece, as well as another favorite of mine, A Yellow Flower, and Blow-Up, which was the basis for the Antonioni movie, as well as the inspiration for DePalma’s Blow-Out. 15 stories in all.

    There’s an excellent interview with Cortazar, quite quite long, by Evelyn Picon Garfield from 1973, reprinted in “The Review of Contemporary Fiction”, Fall 1983, 3.3. The interview gives you a good sense of him as a person.

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  5. I can’t believe finding this review while trolling around trying to figure out what’s happening in this genre. I am new to this site, but have read most all of Cortazar 30 years ago, and Axolotl was always one of the stories I admired and enjoyed. Actually, this is the 1st time I’ve run across anyone even familiar with it.

    Cortazar and Burroughs and Ballard – literature for the rest of us. Occupy Perdido Street.

  6. Oh, cool. Yes the translation of Axolotl in THE WEIRD, our new anthology, is the first since the 1960s, and considered definitive by the estate.

  7. Great post. I was checking constantly this weblog and I’m inspired! Very useful info specially the ultimate part 🙂 I take care of such info a lot. I was looking for this certain information for a very long time. Thanks and best of luck.

  8. Paul Blackburn’s translation of the Cortázar stories is tremendously flawed. You don’t even need a fine-tooth comb to uncover the problems. A quick read-through of the Spanish and Blackburn’s “version” of “Casa Tomada” can send one’s blood boiling.

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