Short Story Review – Kurahasi Yumiko – Apollo’s Head

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

What to do with a human head? One that blinks, breathes, and seems to think? The narrator of Kurahasi Yumiko’s Apollo’s Head (trans. Ian McDonald), a young woman who hates animals and has never even petted a cat or dog, becomes enamoured with the head, which she finds by some ginkgo trees, in late autumn, during a particularly pleasant evening. The head in question is that of a young man or a boy, and is very beautiful.

I stood transfixed, unable to take my eyes off the strange glowing head. Perhaps the best way to describe it was that I felt bewitched. The head possessed an exquisite beauty I’d never seen except in statues of deities. For a brief moment I thought it must be the head of a doll made from some special material, but I quickly realized it was a real human head. While this should have meant the head was lifeless, that did not appear to be the case.

She leaves the head where it is, but not before stroking its face and touching its hair. The hair is soft and dark, the face warm – like skin. Later, at home, she obsesses over the head. Is it alive? Is it the head of a man, a god, a plant, a demon? She leans toward it being from a god, and decides to locate it again tomorrow and bring it home.

I hardly slept a wink that night. I couldn’t shake the feeling the head had been alive. In my dreams I saw it reattached to its naked body—a body halfway between a boy’s and a young man’s. It brought to mind a statue of Apollo hewn from Pentelic or Parian marble, the only difference being that his skin was not heavy like stone but white and supple like a young sapling. I dreamed I was naked, too, my body entwined around the marble statue’s treelike trunk. Despite his lack of any discernable identity or personality—or perhaps because of it—the statue seemed to be my true lover.

The narrator is engaged to Toru, a young man who visits a few times a week, and sometimes stays over. He is far less impressed with the head than she. Together they watch as it blinks and slightly moves, and seems to gaze off across faraway vistas. They determine that it must be alive, and the narrator notices that the head had begun to spread its roots, and it seems clear to both that it was drinking water through the veins/roots extending from the severed neck. The narrator dreamily comments to her increasingly perplexed that perhaps the beautiful head might flower.

Over the winter months the head underwent a dramatic transformation. He began to look less and less like a beautiful youth, turning red and hard like a pomegranate. When spring arrived he suddenly swelled to the size of a watermelon and took on a leafy green color. Little white hairs, or soft thorns, sprouted all over his surface, giving him the air of an exotic cactus. Then colorful flowers, a bit like pink hyacinths, blossomed where there had once been locks of hair. More flowers followed—amaryllises and purple orchids—all blooming out of season. Retaining its original human shape, the giant cactuslike head was transformed into a riot of flowers, reminding me of a painting by Arcimboldo.

As can likely be imagined, the fiancé leaves and the narrator is left along to look after the head. It flowers, bears fruit, and the seeds of the fruit are cultivated into a growing array of heads – dozens.

Yumiko’s writing reminds one of fellow Japanese writer Kobo Abe, who was equally adept in marrying the strangely beautiful with the ordinary. Particularly as the narrator eats the fruit from the head, the scene where the narrator of Abe’s Kangaroo Notebook plucks the radishes from his shins and eats them.

The story of Apollo’s Head is virtually built into the opening paragraphs. While the initial discovery of a head is surprising, the outcome is likely not – this is a story that writes itself, in a way. That said, the style in which it is written appeals strongly, much like Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s technique of blending the odd with the ordinary. In addition, Kurahasi Yumiko is a very sensuous writer, and though the somewhat sexual appeal of the head (“the statue seemed to be my true lover”) is soon dismissed, the loving nature by which she describes the gradual life stages of the plant/human/god utilise all manner of suggestive and fertile descriptive terminiology. The ending, which describes the narrator standing watch over dozens of growing heads as they drink in the water and face the sun, is both eerie and appealing, and speaks to the strange human desire to manage the growth of all things, even when they are heads, even when they are gods.

Author Kurahasi Yumiko
Title Apollo’s Head
Translator Ian McDonald
Nationality Japanese
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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