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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"The Thief" by Fuminori Nakamura (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Order The Thief HERE

INTRODUCTION: The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, is a modern crime/thriller novel with philosophical overtones which attracted my attention on two counts. It is written by a Japanese author (see HERE and HERE for two of my recent reviews of Japanese novels and of course 2011's top book of mine was 1Q84) and it is published by Soho Press which just put out the wonderful Andromeda Lax-Romano novel The Detour.

Even so, I hesitated before asking for a review copy as a crime novel is generally not much of interest to me (the genre is way too limited and I read tons in it years ago so essentially I consider it "done" for me unless a crime novel has another dimension like being very good sff or historical fiction first), but ultimately I saw some mentions/reviews that convinced me to give it a try and I am really happy I did so as The Thief delivered.

Note that the blurb below is not really accurate in some ways, though it indeed alludes to events in the novel.

"The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn’t even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections.... But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can’t refuse. It’s an easy job: tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of the safe. No one gets hurt. Only the day after the job does he learn that the old man was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. And now the Thief is caught in a tangle even he might not be able to escape."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: When talking about The Thief there are three aspects I want to touch. The prose (and translation) which are just superb, the narrator's story, both present and flashback past, which is extremely compelling and the crime novel aspects which are both important - as in determining the trajectory of the book - and tangential - as in The Thief is not really about them - so the book is likely to appeal more to readers of literary fiction than to crime genre aficionados.

"When I was a kid, I often messed this up. In crowded shops, in other people’s houses, things I’d pick up furtively would slip from my fingers. Strangers’ possessions were like foreign objects that didn’t fit comfortably in my hands. They would tremble faintly, asserting their independence, and before I knew it they’d come alive and fall to the ground. The point of contact, which was intrinsically morally wrong, seemed to be rejecting me. And in the distance there was always the tower. Just a silhouette floating in the mist like some ancient daydream. But I don’t make mistakes like that these days. And naturally I don’t see the tower either."

The first paragraph of the novel shown above showcases the strengths of the novel as style and voice and it instantly hooked me on the book. While there is one short allusion to his "real" name, the narrator lives in a lonely world with few human contacts, though he weaves adroitly in and out Tokyo crowds and blends in milieus that are well off but also in those less so.

Trying to use his natural dexterity and make a living as a pickpocket targeting mostly "the rich" and "the unlikable" and "advance" the state of the art in stealing from others on the street, in stores or in the subway, our hero - who is well versed in the history of his "profession" - knows that being anonymous and having no ties is the ultimate key to surviving.

“There was also this eccentric who’d put a card with his own name on it in the wallet he’d lifted and then put it back. A famous American pickpocket called Dawson. And an amazing man, Angelillo, who’s estimated to have stolen a hundred thousand wallets..."

However he has still been strongly attracted by a few people, most notably the flamboyant thief/swindler Ishikawa, while the ghost of his former married girlfriend, the self-destructive Saeko, still haunts him, years after they parted. Combined with some powerful childhood's memories that still impinge on him today, the thief finds himself inexorably attracted to a somewhat pathetic mother and son couple who try - ineptly and sure to be caught without his intervention - to steal food from a supermarket and that may of course turn out to be his downfall by tying him to a place and people...

In structure, The Thief moves between the present that actually happens a good while after the events alluded in the blurb above, and the past, both personal as noted above and the hero's unwitting association to a sinister but powerful personage and the blurb robbery - this confused me a little and once I understood the chronology of the novel, I went back and reread the opening chapters which actually take on a little different complexion once you find out this or that later.

The Thief is a very fast moving novel and it actually accelerates the deeper you go into its page count, so at some point it becomes literally very hard to put down as you are so caught in the hero's story that you *must* find out what happens next. At least this happened to me and I had to finish the book despite being very late; in many ways this is the clearest proof of how well the novel works.

The downside to the above is that the story while hinting at deeper stuff - for example the tower in the paragraph quoted earlier - and having philosophical overtones on the nature of fate and free will, never really explores them much and of course the crime aspects are relatively thin. This last did not bother me in the least and actually I would even consider it a plus for the reasons noted in the introduction, but it is also worth noting so you know "what you get".

“The nobleman looked at the youth and thought that he would try to prescribe his entire future. The story of his life, his joys, his sorrows, even his death, he would decide it all. Like Abraham and Moses, who were always under God’s control."

With a superb and pitch-perfect ending, The Thief (highly recommended novel of 2012) has been an unexpected success for me and I intend to keep an eye for anything translated from the author's work as well as on the output of Soho Press.


Matthew Selwyn said...

I found this an unexpected success too. I've just finished my review and was surprised at how well Nakamura blended across philosophic and crime genres.


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