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.