Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
Are you into noir crime fiction? Me neither. But one day when there was nothing light and relaxing around the house except the mystery novels my husband reads—our tastes overlap, but not completely–I came upon The Thief by the prize-winning young Japanese writer Fuminori Nakamura. In twenty seconds I was hooked.
From the outset, the story has an existential tone. It plunges you into the consciousness of an experienced pickpocket who inhabits the dreary underworld of Tokyo and its environs and seems to have read Camus and Sartre. He tells us right away that he has always been haunted by the image of a mysterious tower that appears in the background wherever he happens to be, “a silhouette floating in the mist like some ancient daydream.” The tower disappears when he gives in to the urge to take objects belonging to other people. Nothing thrills or satisfies him more than stealing.
He comes by his vocation not out of greed, or the desire for the things money can buy, but as a way of mollifying the primal urge to steal which has been with him since childhood. At first, when he picked up objects that weren’t his, they fell from his hands as if protesting his unethical behavior. But no longer. Now he lives to steal. He targets the rich, whom he knows by their expensive clothing and shoes, and relieves them of their money with an almost unbelievable dexterity. Each time he steals, a warmth spreads throughout his body, and sometimes his heart beats faster and he has to control his breathing. The pickpocket has chosen to live by his addiction and to it has added another: he smokes constantly, which helps calm his nerves in the way taking deep breaths might calm another person. Nakamura’s description of his exploits is riveting. See if you can stop reading the following paragraph before it’s over.
In front of me a man in his early sixties was walking towards the platform, in a black coat with a silver suitcase in his right hand. Of all the passengers here, I was sure he was the richest. His coat was Bruno Cucinelli, and so was his suit. His Berluti shoes, probably made to order, did not show even the slightest scuff marks. His wealth was obvious to everyone around him. The silver watch peeping out from the cuff on his left wrist was a Rolex Datejust. Since he wasn’t used to taking the bullet train by himself, he was having some trouble buying a ticket. He stooped forward, his thick fingers hovering over the vending machine uncertainly like revolting caterpillars. At that moment I saw his wallet in the left front pocket of his jacket.
Perfect focus and tightly controlled word choice create the narrative tension. The style’s austere precision never fails. Each time the protagonist steals, the suspense heightens; we hold our breath until he gets away. By drawing us into the moment by moment commission of each crime, Nakamura forces his readers to identify with the pickpocket, whose victims are faceless and unknown to us: we might feel a vague sympathy for one or two of them, but basically we don’t care. It’s the pickpocket we root for.
His life is stripped and barren. He dresses the way successful people of his age (late twenties, early thirties) dress so as to blend in and deflect attention from himself, but he lives in a frugal apartment in a low-rent district. He has recurrent memories of a woman called Saeko, who is dead, and there’s one other person he cares for, his instructor in crime, Ishikawa, but there’s no one else. Like the narrative style, his existence is pared down to practically nothing. He steals, he smokes, he moves through the grey urban landscape undetected, except by other criminals.
The landscape of the novel reflects its protagonist’s state of extreme deprivation. A typical chapter begins: “Leaning against a dingy office block, I lit a cigarette, shielding it with my coat against the wind. I put my hands in my pockets feeling the cold air chill my neck and shoulders.” It could almost be Kurt Wallander, the hero of Henning Mankell’s detective novels, stepping out into the freezing temperatures of Skane, the province in Sweden where he lives and the weather is always bad. After stealing the wallet of an elderly gentlemen who is just coming out of a concert hall with his wife, the pickpocket takes a taxi home: “I passed rusted signboards, looked vacantly at shuttered-up shops next to concrete walls covered in graffiti. I thought about having a smoke but then changed my mind.” The physical features of his world are hostile, decaying and lifeless. The mean streets Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe must walk down seem inviting by comparison.
But there is a note of hope. Just as he’s getting out of the cab, the pickpocket notices a boy darting from the shadows of some decaying apartments. He’d seen him earlier, shoplifting in a supermarket with his mother. The pickpocket knows that the boy has been spotted by the store detective and buys the stolen groceries for him so that he won’t be apprehended. Earlier, watching the boy steal, he had remarked: “I felt as though the course of his life had been determined at birth, that he was constantly pushing against a powerful current.” The thief identifies with the boy and tries to help him break out of the life he’s been forced into. His generosity is spontaneous and over the top. But the fate whose power he has glimpsed in the boy’s life is strong, and that strength becomes the leitmotif of his own story, which unfolds rapidly from then on.
The pinched and desolate nature of the world The Thief portrays is sad; it grates against the consciousness of the man who must inhabit it. One feels that he deserves more. The pickpocket’s story, which won Japan’s largest literary prize, is short, gripping and hard to forget. I’m still thinking about it. It will haunt you, too, if you decide to take the plunge. ~