Monday, February 17, 2014

The Axolotl in the Coalmine


In my formative years (as if those were over) I took a great literature class at Wayne State University in Detroit: Experimental Fiction.  There I discovered Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar both for whom I have held an undying admiration.  But it is Cortázar for whom I have the most affection.  He is probably most famous for his story “Blow Up” which provided the concept for Antonioni’s famous film of the same name.  The premise of this story is similar to this video of a camera falling from an airplane, if the camera had the ability to narrate:

Or, maybe his best known work is his first novel Hopscotch which can be read linearly or “randomly”--the reader gets to choose. My favorite of his short stories is “The End of the Game.”  In fact it is among my favorites of all short stories.  It is features no speaking cameras (like “Blow Up”) nor does it play with postmodernity.  It is about, simply, childhood.  

But on hearing the news about the probable extinction of the axolotl in the Mexican wild.  I thought first of Cortázar’s story “Axolotl.”  The axolotl is an amphibian and the word axolotl is Nahuatl, and translates as water monster.  Commonly referred to today as the walking fish.  It is native to only two lakes near Mexico City, one of which has vanished completely (artificially drained to avoid flooding) and one which exists mostly in canal form, Lake Xochimilco. A four-month long search in 2013 turned up no surviving individuals in the wild.  Previous surveys in 1998, 2003 and 2008 had found 6000, 1000 and 100 axolotls per square kilometer in its Lake Xochimilco habitat, respectively.

I always loved Cortázar’s story, “Axolotl,” probably because it was among his easiest to understand.  In “Axolotl” the narrator becomes obsessed with an axolotl in an aquarium, until by the end (SPOILER ALERT!) of the story, some kind Vulcan mind meld occurs and the narrator has become the axolotl staring out of the terrarium.  Borges said, of Cortázar "No one can retell the plot of a Cortázar story; each one consists of determined words in a determined order. If we try to summarize them, we realize that something precious has been lost."  Thus, I highly recommend reading the story here in its entirety, it’s not long:

Axolotls were, also, incidentally, a staple of the Aztec diet, but as we all know the axolotl outlasted the Aztec.  And we will outlast the axolotl, but one wonders, by how long?  I doubt that Cortázar could have foreseen the end of the axolotl’s days in the wild, nor that he intended his story as an eco-cautionary tale, but make no mistake: our days in the wild are threatened, too.  If we are the axolotl and the axolotl is us, we can look forward to a future inside an aquaruium. Tended by whom, I wonder?

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