‘The Thief’ by Fuminori Nakamura

The-thief

Fiction – hardcover; Corsair; 211 pages; 2012. Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates.

I first heard about Fuminori Nakamura’s prize-winning novella, The Thief, when Sakura reviewed it on Chasing Bawa, so when I saw it on the shelves of my local library I borrowed it. I gulped it down in about two days — and have been feeling slightly paranoid about having my wallet stolen ever since.

A pickpocket who targets the rich

This very quick read is about a pickpocket — the thief of the title — who narrates the story in the first person. Nishimura is a loner and claims to have no friends or family. His sole occupation is to pick the pockets of the wealthiest people he can find, either on the streets of Tokyo or the public transport system (crowded trains and platforms provide him with particularly rich pickings).

He is so good at pickpocketing he often finds wallets about his person that he has lifted with no recollection of having stolen them.  But he is not interested in credit cards or personal items found in the wallets he steals; he simply wants the cash to fund his lifestyle.

The fluorescent light glinted faintly off the button on his cuff, sliding at the edge of my vision. I breathed in gently and held it, pinched the corner of the wallet and pulled it out. A quiver ran from my fingertips to my shoulder and a warm sensation gradually spread throughout my body.

A thief with a good heart

But Nishimura isn’t a particularly bad person; there’s a good heart inside of him. In one scene he is so outraged to see a man on the train groping a schoolgirl he comes to her rescue. And later, when he sees a woman and her young son shoplifting, he warns them that they have been spotted by the store detective.

Against his better judgement, Nishimura then goes on to develop a complicated sexual relationship with the woman, who is a prostitute, but it is the boy to whom he becomes most attached. He teaches him how to pickpocket — not to exploit him but to instill some vital survival skills.

And yet it is Nishimura’s survival which is most at risk here. That’s because when he meets up with his former partner in crime, Ishikawa, he becomes embroiled in an armed robbery that is more dangerous (and complicated) than he’d been lead to believe. His special skill as a pickpocket is then put to the test in a series of increasingly dangerous operations in which failure is not an option…

A dark page-turner

The Thief, which won Japan’s 2010 Ōe Prize, is a gripping read, which races along at Formula One pace. It’s edgy, filled with paranoia and brims with a dark mix of danger and excitement.  Yet the author’s prose is exceptionally skeletal. There’s barely an adjective in the book. And despite the page-turning quality, there’s a feeling of stillness — and empty, aching silence — in the narrative.

What I especially liked is the way in which it turns the crime genre on its head. This isn’t about solving a crime; it’s merely a glimpse inside a criminal’s life which allows you to empathise with someone you would most likely condemn. (From past experience, this appears to be a common thread in Japanese crime fiction — see, for example, Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X and Natsuo Kirino’s Real World.)

Don’t expect to come away from the book feeling uplifted, because this is the kind of read that takes you to dark, terrifying places, albeit in the safety of your own imagination. But if you are looking for something fresh and a little offbeat, it will provide perfect fare.

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19 thoughts on “‘The Thief’ by Fuminori Nakamura

  1. The more interesting novels that I’ve read from Japan are those characters who don’t follow the rules of their society – the outsiders.
    I am going to look for this book. Thanks for the review.

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  2. I really like the sound of this book. I think I’d enjoy it, as I really liked Real World, and didn’t mind The Devotion of Suspect X. Haven’t seen it out here yet – must hunt for a release date.

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  3. I think you have hit the nail on the head, Isabel. All the Japanese books I have read are about characters who don’t fit into conventional society; that’s obviously a topic that Japanese writers like to explore.

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  4. It certainly made me paranoid too! I’m really glad you enjoyed the book, it’s certainly one that makes you think about the criminal world and the many characters that inhabit it, not all of them bad.

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  5. This one would be good for Tony’s Japanese Lit month… I’ve got quite a few Japanese books in the queue, so must see if I can read at least one for January.

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  6. It does seem that a lot of Japan’s most famous writers embody this kind of outsider spirit and mentality. I mean, the second highest selling book in the country’s history is ‘No Longer Human’ by Osamu Dazai which is a very dark and introspective look inside the life of this person who feels as if he must display a front of jocularity in order to fit in with the rest of society. Then there’s Yukio Mishima and Confessions of a Mask, Natsume Soseki and Kokoro, etc.

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  7. Another of Fuminori Nakamura’s books has been given an English translation, “Evil and the Mask”. It sounds really interesting.

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  8. Thanks, Jeff, it does sound interesting… but it is a bit out of my price range at the moment. Even the Kindle edition is very pricey. Have added it to the wishlist though, because maybe the price will drop when the paperback comes out.

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