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Sunday
Oct262014

Axolotl

Probably the best-known short story about Mexican salamanders ("Axolotls"), the work of this Argentine.  You can read the original here.

There was a time when I used to think quite often about axolotls. I would go see them in the aquarium of the Jardin des Plantes and remain transfixed for hours; I would watch them either unmoving or moving darkly. Now I too am an axolotl.

Chance led me to them one spring morning. Paris was opening its peacock tail after a slow hibernation and I went down towards the Boulevard Port-Royal, took St. Marcel and L'Hôpital, espied the green among so much grey and remembered the lions. I was a great admirer of lions and panthers, yet I had never entered into the dark humid building that housed the aquariums. I propped up my bicycle against the railing and went to look at the tulips. The lions were ugly and sad and my panther was asleep. So I opted for the aquariums and avoided some vulgar-looking fish until, unexpectedly, I came face-to-face with the axolotls. I stood there for an hour gazing at them then left, incapable of anything else.

At the Saint-Geneviève library I consulted a dictionary and learned that axolotls are larval forms, outfitted with gills, of a species of batrachia of the genus ambystoma. That they were Mexican was clear to me from their small pink Aztec faces and the sign above the aquarium. I read that specimens had been found in Africa capable of living on land during periods of drought and which continued their life in the water once the rainy season set in. I also discovered their Spanish name, ajolote, that they were edible, and that their oil was used (it might no longer be used) like cod liver oil.

I had no desire to consult specialized works; instead, I returned to the Jardin des Plantes the following day. I began going every morning, sometimes both in the morning and evening. The aquarium custodian would smile at me somewhat perplexed as he took my ticket. I would lean against the iron bar that encased the aquariums and begin my study. There was nothing strange in all this because from the first moment on I understood that we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant continued to unite us all the same.  I had already had my fill that first morning in front of the glass when a few bubbles scampered to the surface. The axolotls crowded together in the aquarium's narrow, miserable floor (I alone could tell how just how narrow and miserable) of stone and moss. There were some new specimens, and most of them leaned their heads against the glass, looking with their eyes of gold at their surrounders. Disturbed, almost ashamed, I felt a certain impudence in these silent, unmoving figures gathered at the bottom of the aquarium. I mentally isolated one of them situated on the right, somewhat separate from the rest, so as to examine it more closely. What I saw was a little pink, almost translucent body (I thought of those small Chinese statues made of milky glass) not unlike that of a lizard of fifteen centimeters with a fish's tail of extraordinary delicateness – the most sensitive part of our body. Along its back ran a transparent fin fused to its tail. But what I obsessed about were its incomparably fine legs ending in tiny digits and minutely human nails. And then I came across its eyes and face. Its face was inexpressive with no other trait apart from eyes, two orifices like pinheads entirely of transparent gold, lacking all life but looking, allowing themselves to be penetrated by my gaze – my gaze that seemed to pass through that golden point and vanish in an interior diaphanous mystery. The most slender of black halos bordered its eye, engraved into its pink flesh, into its head's pink and vaguely triangular stone, albeit with round and irregular sides. All this lent it a striking resemblance to a statue corroded by time. Its mouth was concealed by the triangular plane of the face; only at a profile could its considerable size be detected, and from the front a fine crack faintly traced a lifeless stone. On both sides of the head, where the ears would have been, three red veins sprang out like coral, a vegetal growth; the gills, I assumed. And, as it were, the only living thing about it. Every ten or fifteen seconds the veins would be seized with rigid tension, then return to a more relaxed appearance. Once in a while a leg would twitch ever so slightly; I could see the tiny toes steadying themselves in the moss. That which we do not like moves us greatly, and that aquarium was so mean and miserable ... No sooner did we step forward a bit then we would fall into a queue or ram heads with one another. There were difficulties, fights, fatigue. The time felt less oppressive when we were all still.

It was precisely this stillness that made me lean over in fascination the first time I caught sight of the axolotls. I had a dim comprehension of their secret will, of abolishing time and space through indifferent immobility. Then I learned more: the contraction of their gills, the probing of their tiny legs in the stone, and the sudden swimming (some of them swam by simply undulating their bodies) all showed me that they were quite capable of escaping this mineral stupor in which they spent countless hours. More than anything, their eyes were my obsession. Near them in the neighboring aquariums, a few fish gazed at me with the simple stupidity of their beautiful eyes quite similar to ours. But the eyes of the axolotls spoke of the presence of a different life, of another way of looking. Pressing my face to the glass (sometimes, the custodian would cough worriedly) I tried to get a better view of those tiny golden points, that entrance into a world infinitely slow and remote from these pink creatures. It was useless to tap the glass with my finger right in front of their faces: they would never have emitted the slightest reaction. Those eyes of gold continued to burn in their sweet and terrible light; they continued looking at me from an unfathomable depth that gave me vertigo.

And nevertheless they were near. This I knew before, before I became an axolotl. This I knew the day I approached them that first time. As opposed to what most people think, the anthropomorphic features of a monkey reveal the distance between them and us. The axolotls' absolute lack of any resemblance to human beings demonstrated that this recognition was valid, that I was not relying on easy analogies. Only the little hands ... But lizards also had hands like that, and they resemble us in no way. I think that it is the head of the axolotl, this pink triangular form with its small golden eyes. It saw and knew. It demanded. They were not animals.

It seemed simple, almost obvious, to turn to mythology. In the axolotls I began seeing a metamorphosis that was unable to erase a mysterious humanity. I imagined them conscious, slaves to their bodies, infinitely condemned to an abysmal silence, to desperate reflection. Their blind gaze, the tiny yet terrible disc of inexpressive gold, yielded a message: "Save us. Save us." Surprisingly I found myself mumbling words of advice, instilling childish hopes. They continued looking at me but did not move; soon enough the gills' pink veins became rigid. At that moment I felt something like dull pain; perhaps they could see me; perhaps they noticed my effort to penetrate into the impenetrable of their lives. They were not human beings, but in no animal had I ever encountered such a profound relationship. The axolotls were like witnesses to something, and at times like horrible judges; I felt ignoble before them. There was such a frightening purity in those transparent eyes. They were larvae, but larva also meant mask as well as ghost. Behind those Aztec faces, inexpressive and yet of implacable cruelty, what image awaited its hour? 

I feared them. I think that if I hadn't sensed the proximity of the other visitors and the custodian, I would not have dared to remain alone with them. "You're eating them with your eyes," the custodian said with a laugh – he must have thought me a bit unbalanced. But he didn't realize that it was they who were devouring me, slowly, with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold. Far from the aquarium I did nothing more than think of them; it was as if they were influencing me from a distance. I came by every day, and at night I imagined them unmoving in the darkness, slowly moving one hand that soon enough encountered another hand. Perhaps their eyes could see in complete darkness and the day continued for them indefinitely. Axolotls' eyes had no lids. 

Now I know that there was nothing odd, that this had to occur. Every morning as I leaned towards the aquarium, the recognition was greater. They were suffering; every fiber of my body perceived this muffled suffering, this rigid torture at the bottom of the water. They were spying on something, a remote annihilated dominion, a time of liberty in which the world had belonged to the axolotls. It was not possible that an expression that terrible, able as it was to overcome the forced inexpressiveness of their stone features, did not bear a message of pain, the proof of eternal damnation, of this liquid inferno that afflicted them. I uselessly sought to prove to myself that my own sensitivity was projecting into the axolotls an inexistent consciousness. They and I both knew. For that reason there was nothing strange, nothing odd in what occurred. My face was pressed up against the aquarium glass, my eyes trying one more time to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold bereft of iris or pupil. I looked from very close at the face of an unmoving axolotl right by the glass. Without transition, without surprise, I saw my own face in the glass; instead of the axolotl I saw my own face in the glass, I saw it outside the aquarium, I saw it on the glass's other side. Then my face moved away and I understood.

Only one thing was strange: thinking like I did before, knowing. This realization was intially akin to the horror of someone buried alive who awakes to his destiny. Outside, my face came back and approached the glass. Here I saw my mouth and its lips pressed tight in an effort to understand the axolotl. I was an axolotl and now knew instantaneously that no comprehension was possible. It was beyond the aquarium; its thoughts were thoughts beyond the aquarium. Knowing that and being the same, I too was an axolotl and was in my own world. The horror came – I knew it that very moment – from having made myself a prisoner in the body of an axolotl, transmigrating into that body with the thoughts of a man, being buried alive in an axolotl, damned to moving lucidly among insensitive creatures. But all this stopped when a leg brushed against my face; when barely moving to the side I saw an axolotl next to me, watching me; and I knew that it knew as well, without any possible communication but yet so clear. Or perhaps I also was in it, or perhaps all of us thought like a man, incapable of expression, limited to the golden shining of our eyes which gazed upon the face of the man pressed up against the glass. 

He returned many times thereafter, but comes less often now. Weeks pass without his dropping in. Yesterday I saw him, and he looked at me for a long while then left abruptly. I had the impression he took little interest in all of us, that he was obeying a custom. Since the only thing I do is think, I was able to think about him a lot. It occurs to me that, in the beginning, we continued to communicate, that he felt more than ever united in a mystery over which he obsessed. But the bridges between him and me were short, because what was once his obsession is now an axolotl, alien to the life of man. I think that, in the beginning, I was capable of becoming this he again to a certain extent – ah, only to a certain extent – and sustain his desire of getting to know each other better. Now I am definitely an axolotl, and if I think like a man it is only because every axolotl thinks like a man within his image of pink stone. I also think that in all this I managed to communicate something to him those last days, when I was still he. And in this last solitude to which he no longer returns, it consoles me to think that perhaps he will write about us. That, believing he is imagining a story, he will write everything about axolotls.

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