Oct 20, 2013

On 'Axolotl' by Julio Cortazar

Read the first story 'Axolotl' from the Julio Cortazar's collection 'Blow-Up and Other Stories,' translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn. I've no clue of Paul Blackburn's reputation as a translator. (It is perhaps noteworthy that Cortazar's most famous work, the novel 'Rayuela,' was translated into English as 'Hopscotch' not by Paul Blackburn but by the illustrious Gregory Rabassa, who rode that success and went on to translate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'). 'Axolotl,' I claim, must not have been an easy story to translate. This is because Cortazar is attempting something quite stupendous here - a slowly culminating identity switch between the human narrator and the axolotl that the former has gotten into a habit of watching through an aquarium in Paris' Jardin des Plantes. The narrator is enamored with the physical features of the unique creature, its immobility, and most of all its unlidded eyes. He apparently finds in it a metaphor for his own situation in the world, though that metaphor is never really made clear, obviously intentionally. You, the reader, are invited to make your own connection with the exotic creature, amply described here in its biological splendour. The pivotal point comes when the identity switch finally takes place, when the sentence that presents it, presents it. I present the crucial paragraph, where the narrative voice flips over - note how what begins in a human voice transforms into the voice of the animal by the final line:

...Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, the lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls. I was an axolotl and now I knew instantly that no understanding was possible. He was outside the aquarium, his thinking was a thinking outside the tank. Recognizing him, being him himself, I was an axolotl and in my world. The horror began-! learned in the same moment -of believing myself prisoner in the body of an axolotl, metamorphosed into him with my human mind intact, buried alive in an axolotl, condemned to move lucidly among unconscious creatures. But that stopped when a foot just grazed my face, when I moved just a little to one side and saw an axolotl next to me who was looking at me, and understood that be knew also, no communication possible, but very clearly. Or I was also in him, or all of us were thinking humanlike, incapable of expression, limited to the golden splendor of our eyes looking at the face of the man pressed against the aquarium.
One notices in this paragraph a deliberately constructed confusion regarding the subject of each sentence which, I claim, appears a bit rugged around the edges than it must have in the original Spanish. The crucial line is... But that stopped when a foot grazed my face,... for it is here that the identity switch is presented, using the physical wake-up call of an axolotl foot (the axolotls are in a group inside the aquarium, and the foot is the foot of a neighbor) grazing an axolotl face. It is after this sentence that you know that the narrative voice has left the narrator and picked a new host, the axolotl inside the aquarium. No wonder that the next paragraph starts with these lines.

He returned many times, but he comes less often now.
Despite the irrecoverable losses in translation here, which I've only attempted to speculate here, rather than delineate, 'Axolotl' survives as a delightful story for the aspiring writer. i say this for two reasons, one technical, the other ontological.


  1. The technical reason is that in 'Axolotl,' an aspiring writer can clearly make out the language trickery that goes behind the mutation of the narrator. By the end of the story, the object of narration becomes the narrator, without any obvious schism in the manner of the story. Cortazar achieves this with the deliberate subjective confusion that I've mentioned earlier. The nuance, of course, is in managing the confusion without being altogether confusing. Repeated readings will reveal the restraint Cortazar employs.
  2. The ontological reason is that 'Axolotl' is a solid demonstration of literature's capabilities and of the exclusive power held by art that is formed of nothing but words. I claim that what 'Axolotl' achieves, it achieves only through its existence as a written short story. The same story would have been absurd, or even vulgar, cinematically. It becomes art when presented as something that needs to be read. 'Axolotl,' by achieving what can only be achieved by a pen on paper, reaffirms faith in the artform itself.

6 comments:

  1. Umm.. I think you are wrong here. The transformation happens with the second line, or even with the first line, of the presented paragraph. It is the dis-identification with the man outside that happens in the last line.

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    1. The thing is - he says I'm am axolotl many times earlier in the story, so that does not register uniquely. For me the solid slap line remains the one with the foot brushing the face.

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  2. The statement "I am an axolotl" doesn't register as the reader still assumes - and I think that it is this very automatic behavior that is the focus of Cortazár's identity deconstruction - that a human man is generating the narrator's voice. As the story continues on there's still a demarcation between the narrator's voice and axolotl's by use of the pronouns "them/their" not to mention such a detailed description of their "biological splendor" as you've called it supports an alien perception of the axolotl. That is to say, they are not, presumably, constructing their identities based on the fact that they enjoy a perma-larval stage, are edible, have been used as cod-liver oil is used, etc. Also I think Cortázar downplays and then confuses the impending "body switch" with this particular sentence:

    No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass.

    ...which after a second reading can be recognized as an emotive precursor to the literal/literary switch itself which, I agree, is the line referring to the face & foot touching. It's interesting to note that throughout this whole story no other physical contact occurs. The basis of the relationship between man and axolotl is a heady one, so to speak, such that all communication and realization is telepathic. It makes sense that a disruption or shift in their relationship would occur with a physical breach beyond the aquarium glass.

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    1. I agree totally. And you do bring out new things about the story, especially the lack of a physical contact with anything throughout the story.

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  3. Regarding the translators: Rabassa is, as you say, deservedly very highly regarded, and Cortázar, who read English well and worked closely with him on the translations he did, was always very happy with the result.

    Paul Blackburn, who was best known as a poet and as a translator of poets, came into contact with Cortázar in 1958 and was probably his first English-language translator (though because of publishing delays he was not the translator of his first English-language book, which was Elaine Kerrigan, whose version of The Winners was revised substantially by Blackburn). Blackburn became Cortázar's agent (in the US) and good friend; his wife at the time, Sara Blackburn, was at Pantheon and oversaw Rabassa's translation.

    The subsequent division of labor between Blackburn and Rabassa was decided in part by the vagaries of their schedules, and perhaps partly by their aptitude for different kinds of material, but Cortázar worked closely with Blackburn on the stories in "Blow-up" and was quite satisfied with the result.

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    1. Thanks a lot for the information Chris. It makes me trust the translation more.

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