“Axolotl” a remarkable short story by Julio Cortazar


“I (visited) the aquarium, looked askance at banal fish until, unexpectedly, I came face to face with the Axolotl. I gazed at them for an hour and left, unable to think of anything else…”

This story reminded me of that famous quotation that I’ve heard attributed to Confucius: “I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”

What’s the longest period of time you’ve ever spent looking at an animal? Even if you’ve been to a zoo, you probably don’t always spend THAT long looking at one particular animal do you? As a birdwatching enthusiast, I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the woods with binoculars, and I’ve often observed individual birds for several minutes, but they have almost never “held still” for me, and rarely were they looking back at me. I guess the closest I’ve come to this story is looking into the eyes of a pet dog or something along those lines. Then, in literature, I can only remember a passage from Samuel Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh” where going to the zoo and watching the elephants is prescribed as a restorative therapy for young Ernest Pontifex. In none of these instances did any kind of transmigration or “communication” take place like it does in this surreal story by Julio Cortazar.

The protagonist of this story – I don’t believe he’s ever named, which is somewhat fitting – becomes obsessed with observing the Axolotls (also known as Mexican Salamanders or Mexican Walking Fish) at the aquarium in a Paris zoo. He is fascinated with them and begins to think quite deeply about their existence. As is often the case, thinking too long about something can lead to “trouble.”

The narrator writes “I think it was the Axolotl’s head, that triangular pink shape with the tiny eyes of gold. That gazed and knew. That claimed. They were no animals.” And later “I imagined them aware, slaves to their bodies, forever condemned to an abyssal silence, to a hopeless meditation.”

He also says “…in some obscure way I understood their secret will, to abolish space and time with their indifferent immobility.”

’This guy is losing it!’ I remember thinking as I read the story. His grip on his own identity loosens and becomes almost indistinguishable from the identity of the creatures he observes. What will happen here? The reader can likely guess… I found the the final lines of the story quite haunting, and I have to admit that when I looked up Axolotls online and saw what they look like, I found that that knowledge added to my appreciation of the story. This story was also one of my thirteen stories that I’m reading for the R.I.P. Challenge.


(Below Robert Duvall became obsessed in a vaguely similar way by gazing into an exhibit in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Miniature.”)


Want to learn a little about this remarkable creature? Check out http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/amphibians/axolotl/ but, please, don’t become obsessed with them… 🙂

I found an online translated copy of this story at http://pinpointing.wordpress.com/2007/05/02/axolotl/ but it is a different translation from the one in The Weird compendium. A brief look makes me think it is an inferior translation but maybe it is still worth reading.

(Below: the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where the aquarium in this story may be found)



  1. Paula Cappa said,

    September 29, 2014 at 10:08 am

    Sounds like a must read. I don’t know this author. Thanks for the introduction, Jay.


    • Jay said,

      September 29, 2014 at 8:02 pm

      You’re welcome. I think you’d like this one.


  2. Dale said,

    September 29, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    Is the picture you posted of the Axolotl? If so, in a strange way, I can understand staring at it for a long time. I’ve always liked watching sea turtles swim and occasionally have had the opportunity to just sit and watch them for a while. It’s relaxing, but I don’t think I ever stared as long as the protagonist in this story. But the story sounds very good.


    • Jay said,

      September 29, 2014 at 8:01 pm

      Indeed it is, Dale. I hope you didn’t look at the picture too long. 🙂


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