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.