Archive for June, 2011

There is a story by Julio Cortázar called Axolotl. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Julio Cortázar before I read this story but it struck me as a great story.

I found it in a book called Blow-Up and Other Stories translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn and published by Pantheon Books, New York, copyright 1967, 1963.

Blow-Up was turned into a film by Michaelangelo Antonioni, which is well known for, amongst other things, “the sexiest cinematic moment in history,” (according to Premiere magazine), which is supposed to be when David Hemmings photographs the skinny super-model Veruschka. Well, that’s debatable. But let’s not have a diversion and start re-watching all our favourite sexy scenes from the history of cinema. We’re writers. We have to work.

Personally I think I prefer the scene where Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles are running around in his flat pulling each other’s clothes off. If I’m remembering that correctly. I might just have to go and find it to be sure.

But for now let’s stick to Axolotl. There’s no sex in this story. What there is instead is a virtuoso demonstration of empathy.

It was their quietness that made me lean toward them fascinated the first time I saw the axolotls. Obscurely I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility. I knew better later; the gill contraction, the tentative reckoning of the delicate feet on the stones, the abrupt swimming (some of them swim with a simple undulation of the body) proved to me that they were capable of escaping that mineral lethargy in which they spent whole hours. Above all else, their eyes obsessed me. In the standing tanks on either side of them, different fishes showed me the simple stupidity of their handsome eyes so similar to our own. The eyes of the axolotls spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing. Glueing my face to the glass (the guard would cough fussily once in a while), I tried to see better those diminutive golden points, that entrance to the infinitely slow and remote world of these rosy creatures. It was useless to tap with one finger on the glass directly in front of their faces; they never gave the least reaction. The golden eyes continued burning with their soft, terrible light; they continued looking at me from an unfathomable depth which made me dizzy.

Unfortunately I can’t quote the whole story. It is a very pleasurable story to read. But Julio Cortázar paid a terrible price to write it. In order to achieve that empathy with the axolotls, in order to discover that other way of seeing, through those eyes burning with their soft, terrible light, he became an axolotl and the axolotl became Julio Cortázar.

It occurs to me that at the beginning we continued to communicate, that he felt more than ever one with the mystery which was claiming him. But the bridges were broken between him and me, because what was his obsession is now an axolotl, alien to his human life … And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he’s making up a story, he’s going to write all this about axolotls.

I think this is the true vocation of a writer, to become an axolotl.

This is why I write anyway. I don’t worry about grammar and punctuation. Never mind character development and plot. The true art is the art of becoming an axolotl.


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A wet summer

The only time I get to sleep with my wife is when her ex-husband comes to stay. Last time she gave up her bedroom and slept with me in mine. This time I’m the one making the sacrifice. Matthias will have my bedroom for a few nights.

At least we didn’t have any trouble with the stairs this time. We’ve moved to a ground floor flat. Matthias finds it much more convenient.

He even had lighter suitcases.

One of the reasons for this was that Matthias forgot to pack any warm clothes.

Lanying told him off for being so thoughtless.

“But now is summer!” he exclaimed at the airport. “It is hot in London, I am thinking.”

We drove back through the torrential rain discussing where you can buy a cheap raincoat. Matthias was getting chilly in his short-sleeved polyester shirt, so I turned on the heating.

Matthias has been living in Kuala Lumpur for the past two years where it’s regularly 30 degrees.

“They don’t have any seasons in Kuala Lumpur, do they?” I said.

“They don’t have seasons in London, either,” said Lanying. “It’s cold and wet every day of the year.”

“You only think that because you spent all day yesterday in a darkened restaurant,” I told her. “It was glorious sunshine all afternoon.”

“People think it’s hot in London when it gets to 24 degrees,” she replied. “Everyone strips off and lies down half naked in the park. But 24 degrees isn’t hot. They’ve got no idea.”

I got a little lost on the drive home from the airport so Matthias had to direct me. He repeated the instructions from my satnav. First I got the sensual Welsh woman directing me. “In 400 yards go round the roundabout and take the fifth exit. Then stay in the right hand lane.”

Then I got the broad Swiss-German of Matthias. “You see, you need to go right round it again and take the fifth turning onto that road that you were on before. That must be the road. You came off it. And now you need to back on it again. Yes. One. Two. Three. Four. Now it is this one. The fifth turning. You see the motorway is sweeping round like that. Yes. It must be the same road we were on just a moment ago. Perfect. Now we are OK.”

He moved the suitcases easily into my room while I went alone into the underground car park.

“There’s been a problem,” Lanying told me when I came back up to the flat.


“Matthias had some herbal drinks in his suitcase and one of the tops is sort of crushed and broken.”

“You mean it leaked all over his suitcase?”

“All over his clothes. Now he hasn’t got anything at all to wear.”

“That would explain why he’s sitting on my bed naked.”

“What, is he?”

He was.

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