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The Axolotl in Fiction and Film

The Axolotl, or Mexican salamander, is one of the world’s strangest creatures. As described by Argentina’s late Julio Cortazar (1914-1984) in his surreal 1952 story “Axolotl,” this tiny critter possesses “eyes of gold” and “a little rosy body.” Its feet are “of the slenderest nicety, ending in tiny fingers with minutely human nails,” its head “vaguely triangular, but with curved and triangular sides which gave its total likeness to a statuette corroded by time” and “On both sides of the head, where the ears should have been, there grew three tiny sprigs, red as coral…the gills, I suppose.” I’ll confess that upon first reading Cortazar’s story I thought this creature was an invention (in the manner of the imaginary critters that populate Cortazar’s tale “Headache”) but Axolotls are real, if nearly extinct.

     Axolotls were revered (and eaten) by the Aztecs, but the Spanish conquest of Mexico put an end to that. Today axolotls are an endangered species, with Mexico’s Lake Xochimilco being these creatures’ sole remaining habitat. Yet interest in axolotls remains high among scientists, researchers and weirdoes like me.

     A most curious feature about the axolotl is that it can regenerate amputated limbs. Even odder is the fact that due to a mysterious accident at some point in their evolution axolotls retain infant features throughout their lives, yet still live to a ripe old age.

     The axolotl turns out to be a perfect foil for the overly inquisitive narrator of Cortazar’s tale, who gazing at these creatures in a museum aquarium is struck by how completely alien they are to us, and also by their demeanor, which appears to exist in a state of permanent unconsciousness: “Obscurely I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility.” Inevitably the man grows dangerously obsessed with the creatures, and inevitably transforms into an axolotl himself. As such he joins his fellow axolotls in the aquarium and observes himself in his former human guise peering in through the glass, making “Axolotl” a sort of South Americanized--and much shorter--take on Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS.

     “Axolotl” appeared as the opening story of Cortazar’s 1967 collection THE END OF THE GAME (reissued as BLOW-UP AND OTHER STORIES), and remains the most memorable fictional treatment of the axolotl. Filmic depictions can be found in director Michael Almereyda’s Pixelvision lensed mini-feature ANOTHER GIRL, ANOTHER PLANET (1992), whose protagonist has an aquarium containing several axolotls--and at one point delivers a mini-dissertation on their unique features--and a wholly bizarre educational documentary called WHO WILL AWAKEN AXOLOTL? (KTO RAZBUDIT AKSOLOTLYA?) that emerged from the Soviet Union in 1981.

     Scientific cinema from the Soviet Union is a vital format that remains little known in the western world. Standout examples include 1940’s EXPERIMENTS ON THE REVIVAL OF ORGANISMS (EKSPERIMENTY PO OZHIVLENIYU ORGANIZMOV), in which a dog’s severed head is revived on camera, and 1971’s I AND OTHERS (YA I DRUGIYE), an exploration of conformity involving machine guns fired at college students. Both films are first and foremost profoundly strange, but the 48 minute WHO WILL AWAKEN AXOLOTL? attains an entirely new level of oddness.

     The alleged “masterpiece” of the renowned biologist-filmmaker Elena Sakayan (1944-2003), WHO WILL AWAKEN AXOLOTL? consists largely of a young woman exploring a vast museum, where her attention is captured by some axolotls in an aquarium. Their attributes are used to metaphorically explore evolutionary possibilities in humans, who are apparently also stuck in an infant state. To this end Sakayan includes extensive voice-over narration and scientific discussion about the possibility of “awakening” axolotls, and by extension human beings, from their arrested evolution.

     But what was apparently intended as an enchanting and enlightening cinematic dissertation comes off as creepy and off-putting, with distorted lenses and eerie sound effects predominating. There’s also a lengthy 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-esque psychedelic lightshow, some intricate axolotl POV shots (which directly recall the Cortazar story) and a wealth of highly dissonant music cues, including a Vangelis tune and the Bach prelude played in Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS, that only enhance the air of otherworldly strangeness. Sakayan deserves credit, at least, for livening up material that without all the psychedelia would probably be excruciating, even if the finished film plays like nothing so much as a bad trip in a science museum.

     Nearly as eccentric is the British documentary LIVE AND ROAR: AN AXOLOTL ODYSSEY. Made for London’s Natural History Museum in 2012, this 23 minute film consists of extensive footage of axolotls in their native habitat, overlaid with eccentric up-tempo music and none-too-scientific narration that in its own odd and profane fashion covers most of the axolotl’s attributes. Also described are its insect-based diet and the consequences of the axolotl’s potential extinction (that the dangerous insects it consumes will proliferate).

     The opening lines, a rap of sorts, set the tone narration-wise: “Axolotl you are the one, one lake your last room under the sun…you still have a good time, you don’t metamorphose, and yet you enjoy a sexual prime.” Other standout lines include “We are a pair--we fail to mature and can’t live in fresh air” and “Do the neighbor’s legs and tail have a fucking exoskeleton?” The film also includes an echo of WHO WILL AWAKEN AXOLOTL? in one of its final lines, which once again brings up the possibility of “awakening” the axolotl: “After a million years it’s time to grow up.”

     Beyond that axolotls are quite scant in literature and film, although they are referenced in the title of Helene Hegemann’s 2010 novel AXOLOTL ROADKILL. That reference is metaphoric, with the book’s drug-addled 16-year-old narrator conjuring the axolotl’s infant features in her refusal to mature. AXOLOTL ROADKILL, for the record, received quite a bit of admiring attention in its native Germany, but that admiration quickly turned to outrage when it was revealed that Hegemann had in fact plagiarized much of the text--a charge she famously countered/rationalized with the claim “There’s no such thing as originality…just authenticity.” More interesting to me is a later statement she made pertaining to the subjects of the title: “There are five times more axolotls being kept as pets in Germany than before my book…It’s great to achieve such concrete results with your shite book.” I couldn’t agree more! 

--10/11/15

     

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