I’ve just read Julio Cortazar’s short story “The Axolotl” again after some five years of Axolotl-free reading and find myself audibly cheering as I follow Cortazar into a labyrinth. The story is much too good to be hashed up in this setting; I hope a curious reader will search it out and share my appreciation. The curious achievement of the story is in presenting a narrative voice that is simultaneously the narrator and not the narrator. It’s one thing to go all Sybil as an author, pumping out personalities by the gross and laboriously coming up with accents or verbal ticks that set them all apart, a convention I find tiresome. There are numbers of effectively unreliable narrations, some of which employ a divided mind, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club for example, but Cortazar’s game is not in writing a hide-and-seek, gotcha, surprise ending, or in documenting a descent into madness. He’s not even trotting out an elaborate tale of metamorphosis.

Cortazar has created a mobius strip in words, a closed loop in which what we might call opposites share an identity. That’s not quite it, and in attempting to put the experience of reading these words into words, I am acknowledging that there’s no head or tail on which to fix a point of entry. Cortazar’s literary cousin, Jose Luis Borges, approached the same territory in his story, “The Aleph”. His protagonist/narrator finds that language is inadequate to his purpose. “What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write is successive, because language is successive.”

I swim in language; it’s what I know, but to express what it is that Cortazar brings into being, I have to leave words and the universe as I understand it and stumble into a field of mathematics known as topology. I am somewhat familiar with topography, the description of surfaces, but to go beyond the surface, that discipline is as inadequate as language. Topology, on other hand, is concerned with the study of objects under continuous deformation, objects simultaneously stretching, twisting, bending, crumpling … but not breaking. Leave it to mathematics, the bane of my existence, to approach what words cannot.

So, topologists are interested in objects that experience continuous deformation(de- forming) while remaining continuous; they can move between what math calls functions, which I’ll call identities, without losing any of their properties. A mobius strip is described as non-orientable because it is continuous, no head/no tail and that’s why I can’t put the experience of reading the story into words, which creates a very interesting conundrum for a reader, as this business of reading, which is a more complicated and isolated form of mentation, is all about words. Successive. Words in the hands of a magician such as Cortazar, however, can deform and reform, as do the narrator and the axolotl. So, in the end, even though language is inadequate to the description of the simultaneous, the experience of reading “The Axelotl” is that against all odds, Cortzar pulls it off.

“The Axolotl” is found in several anthologies including the remarkable Blow Up and Other Stories.

I’m the author of four novels and America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a retired teacher of the humanities, eclectic reader, and prisoner of popular culture.