Akutagawa Prize #161: Murasaki no sukaato no onna, by Imamura Natsuko

Imamura Natsuko 今村夏子Murasaki no sukaato no onna むらさきのスカートの女.  Asahi Shinbun Shuppan, 2019.

This won the 161st A-Prize, for early 2019.  Imamura Natsuko was born in 1980, and has won several prizes since her debut in 2010.  She evidently has quite a popular following, and in fact this book is unusual among Akutagawa Prize winners in not having been published in one of the main literary journals; it first appeared in Shōsetsu Tripper 小説トリッパー, a quarterly from Asahi Shinbunsha that prints both literary and popular fiction.

The woman in the purple skirt.  It’s a first person story, but the narrator hardly appears.  It’s almost entirely the story of the woman of the title – she has a name, but the narrator almost always refers to her as the Woman in the Purple Skirt.  Similarly, the narrator herself has a name, but seems to think of herself instead as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.  The parallel these nicknames suggest starts out humorous, but ends up in a darker place.

The Woman in the Purple Skirt is of indeterminate age, lives alone, has no friends, only works intermittently, and is a figure of fun in her neighborhood.  Presumably because she always wears the same purple skirt and always follows the same routine, we’re told that people on the street always notice when she’s out, and neighborhood kids make a game out of trying to tag her.  She has a minor, odd talent for passing through crowds without brushing up against anybody, and even adults have been known to challenge this by trying to “accidentally” bump into her.  The narrator did this once, missed her, and ended up running into a shopfront and causing enough damage that paying it off ruins her finances.

This seems like a throwaway comic detail at first, but it’s important in the end.

The narrator takes an obsessive interest in the Woman in the Purple Skirt.  When she realizes that the woman has gone weeks without employment she decides to try and help her get a job.  She does this by leaving a help-wanted magazine on her usual park bench with an ad highlighted.  Eventually the Woman in the Purple Skirt takes the hint and applies for the job, which turns out to be as a cleaner at the hotel the narrator works at.  The narrator desperately wants her to get the job, and even goes so far as dropping off a bag of shampoo samples at the woman’s apartment door.

All of this is done anonymously.  The narrator tells us she just really wants to become the woman’s friend, but in fact she never gets the courage to actually speak to the woman until the very end of the book – despite the fact that the woman actually does get the hotel job and works there for months.

Despite initial social awkwardness, the woman quickly adjusts to the job, makes friends with her coworkers (except for the narrator), and becomes a favorite of her supervisors.  This leads to an affair with her boss, which leads to rumors, slander, and eventual accusations of theft.  When the boss comes to her apartment to confront her, the woman says she’s innocent;  their affair is also coming to an end, and in the argument that follows she pushes her boss.  The railing behind him gives way (it’s a dilapidated old apartment building) and he falls from the second story.  Only then does the narrator (who has been spying on the scene) rush out and talk to the woman.  The narrator tells her the boss is dead and she has to flee.  The narrator tells her she has money and supplies stashed in a coin locker at the station, gives her the key and tells the woman to wait for her at a hotel in another city.

Why does the narrator have all this stuff stashed away?  Because since she went broke paying off the damages to the shop, she hasn’t been able to pay rent, and has been making preparations for a transient life herself – although we only put this together at this moment.  Anyway, the woman runs off with the key.  But when the narrator eventually makes her way to the hotel, the woman is nowhere to be found.  The narrator is left with no money and no belongings.

Cut to a few days later.  Somehow the narrator still has her job, the boss has survived, the Woman in the Purple Skirt has never turned up.  And the narrator, the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan, assumes the Woman in the Purple Skirt’s neighborhood routine, sitting on her favorite park bench, with the neighborhood kids tagging her.

So what’s going on here?  The narrator is strange:  obsessive, perhaps even a stalker.  We only realize this halfway through the book, because the narration is literally self-effacing.  The narrator tells us almost nothing about herself.  We only realize she works at the hotel where the Woman in the Purple Skirt gets a job when the Woman shows up there for an interview and the narration follows her.  We know the narrator is in financial trouble because she tells us about the collision (or near-collision, in terms of her aim) early in the book;  the financial trouble is never mentioned again, and in fact the narrator herself only realizes she’s actually being evicted after she gives the locker key to the woman.  This suggests she hasn’t been home for a while – maybe she’s been camped out by the woman’s apartment the whole time?  She keeps a notebook detailing the woman’s comings and goings, and seems to overhear all her conversations.  What is she after?  Friendship, she says.  But despite some comic attempts, she never succeeds in striking up a conversation with her (until the end), and we’re not sure she’s really trying.  In the end, when she smoothly assumes the woman’s place as neighborhood oddity, we wonder if that was her aim all along.

There is, in short, a weird element of projection here.  We don’t exactly know where the Woman in the Purple Skirt ends and the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan begins, probably because the narrator herself may not really know.  Meaning that what starts out as a light, comic portrait of an awkward but ultimately good natured woman ends up being a dark, creepy portrait of an awkward and ultimately, perhaps, disturbed woman.  Very effective.

It’s a good story, well told.  Compulsively readable.  The prose is clean to the point of transparency – very easy to read, in other words, which makes this somewhat unusual among Prize-winners, which tend to cater to the literary establishment’s taste for somewhat difficult or obviously literary prose.