Review: The Thief, Fuminori Nakamura

Not to be confused with Megan Whalen Turner’s book of the same title, although each depicts a clever theft by a protagonist unhappy in his circumstances.

The beginning: There’s some weirdness about timelines, so I may have this wrong, but okay, there is a pickpocket who has returned to Tokyo although it is unsafe for him to do so. He formerly worked with another gifted thief named Ishikawa, and he now works alone. Reasons unclear, though there are hints that Ishikawa came to a Bad End. Oh, gosh, I hope there’s a crime syndicate!

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip it if you don’t want to know!): The thief gets shot in an out-of-sight alley and left for dead by the boss of — something? It’s not clear yet. CRIME SYNDICATE PERHAPS? If so, maybe not a very good crime syndicate: it feels like a rookie mistake to leave somebody for dead instead of all the way killing them. The thief has a coin that he can possibly throw at someone to get their attention. The book ends when he throws the coin, so you must draw your own conclusions as to whether he succeeds.

(Y’all know I like ambiguous endings.)

The whole: I don’t know what to make of this book. It’s thoughtful and elegant in some ways, and I tend to enjoy a story where the protagonist gets in over his head and has to struggle to extricate himself.

But there’s something more mythic than narrative about the story: The thief (his “real” name is Nishimura, but we don’t find out what name he goes by day to day) is given three tasks that he must complete in order to have his life back. The tasks are set by an apparently all-powerful figure (the head of a crime syndicate!), and each one is more difficult than the last, as in any proper myth. In the thief’s head there is an image of a tower, ominous and looming, and although the jury’s out on what exactly its appearance portends, you can assume it’s not good.

Nakamura keeps the reader at arm’s length in this book in a few different ways: by not naming the thief, by keeping back most of his life story, and by a general feeling of shabbiness that pervades the book, all the places the thief goes and all the decisions he makes. It’s a strange combination of dreaminess and grime, combined with some interesting depictions of the mechanics of pickpocketing. Not exactly my thing, but I can see the worth of the endeavor.

MOSTLY. There’s only one lady character, and she’s this total caricature of a drug-addicted prostitute. The thief spots her making her kid shoplift in the grocery store, and he covers for them and gives the kid some money and some tips on how to steal better. Later he offers the mother some money to release the kid into foster care, and she’s all like, “Great! Money is better than kids anyway!” Major eyerolls from me on that.

Final verdict: The Thief was not my thing, but it is also really short, so if you feel like trying something in translation and you find the premise interesting, I say go for it.

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  • I guess I’m going to have to skip this. It does sound good but probably not my type either.

  • Interesting premise – I think it would work well on an upcoming translated literature themed display I am planning at the library.

  • aartichapati

    Speaking of short books with ambiguous endings, have you ever read The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid? I did it on audiobook, and it was quite good as an audiobook, though it really bonked you over the head with its commentary about America.

  • Ela

    I suspect that if you’re a drug-addicted prostitute then your kid maybe isn’t the top of your list of priorities. But bad on Nakamura that she’s the only female character. I get the feeling that this is about par for the course with Japanese literature (with some exceptions) – says she, generalising hugely.