Thursday, October 15, 2009


There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.

So begins a fantastic short story by Julio Cortázar, the Argentine surrealist writer and member of the Boom literary movement, Boom Latinoamericano. An Axolotl is a Mexican neotenic mole salamander. (Cute, huh?) Cortázar readers will never forget this strange creature and the lonely man who visits it in the aquarium. Needless to say, strange things happen.

Cortázar in Paris

Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) influenced countless writers throughout Latin America--and eventually the world--with his playful toying with reality, his stylistic invention, his sense of irony and willingness to spit in the eye of convention. Cortázar, an Argentine, was a fan of Balzac, Verne, Hugo, Mallarmé and Baudelaire, so it was only natural he would leave for Paris, where he did most of his writing. He felt an affinity with Existentialsm and Surrealism even before he left for Paris, and his perspective reflected the position put forth by André Breton in the first Surrealist manifesto. Surrealism, he said, was much more than a "literary movement": it was an attitude towards "reality."

Cortázar was apolitical at first--the most apolitical of the "Boom" writers, a group that included Fuentes of Mexico, Varga Llosa of Peru, and Garcia Márquez of Colombia. The Boom (Boom Latinoamericano) was a literary movement of young writers in the 1960s and 70s who swept the world with challenging work that--like so many movements of the sixties--shook up the status quo and questioned the conventions of the time. The Boom wasn't afraid to write avant garde work, or work that swiped at the military regimes of Latin America, or the US involvement in Vietnam. Cortázar was politicized by the Cuban Revolution in 1959, which he viewed from Paris.

According to Eugenia Demuro, in Julio Cortázar: the Poetic of Exile, "Cortázar became a political figure, openly supporting and defending that revolution, along with the struggles faced in Nicaragua, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. However, even as Cortázar became more committed to the political and social struggles of Latin America he maintained that his political inclinations were never ‘directly’ translated into his literature: he was not a didactic writer."

Shot from the film "Blow Up!"

“When I do politics, I do politics," he said, "and when I make literature, I make literature." This sometimes infuriated the Left, but Cortázar--while remaining a political person--remained a rebellious writer who challenged realist conventions of literature, and the "rational" view of reality they represented. He refused to be pigeonholed.

"I’m now a writer who is tormented," he said in an interview, "very preoccupied by the situation in Latin America; consequently that often slips into my writing, in a conscious or in an unconscious way. But despite the stories with very precise references to ideological and political questions, my stories, in essence, haven’t changed. They’re still stories of the fantastic."

from "Blow Up!"

Most Americans first encountered his stylish, fantastic world through Michelangelo Antonioni's film "Blowup," maybe the quintessential film from swinging sixties, which was inspired by the story, "Las Babas del Diablo" (which translates as "Drool of the Devil"). Cool.

The trailer for Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow Up," based on a Cortázar short story.

A link to
Julio Cortázar's short story, "The Axolotl."

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