THE THIEF by Fuminori Nakamura is an unsettling work of dark fiction, set beneath the gleaming spires of Tokyo in places where the dirt and grit have collected and settled, and the hunters seek their prey. The thief of the title is the narrator of the story; his name --- Nishimura --- is mentioned just once during the course of the book, and if you blink you will miss it. It only adds to the mystery of the protagonist’s persona. The Thief is a master pickpocket, adept at reading visible cues and body language to select wealthy victims and ascertain where their valuables are located on their bodies. But it is far more than a crime novel, or even a “how-to” book on the ins and outs of dipping for fun and profit; it is a chilling character study from beginning to end, a noir tale full of evil.
"[T]he narrative is consistently compelling from beginning to end, an up-and-down ride where one is never truly certain what precisely is going to happen next.... Those who like their stories served up dark and grim will hail THE THIEF as the classic it is."
Nishimura is unapologetic about his trade. He has no qualms about what he does, but at the same time has not deceived himself about the righteousness --- or lack thereof --- of his chosen profession. He is also quite good at it, a fact that becomes evident within the first few paragraphs. Still, we know right from the start that it is not going to end well for Nishimura, and the seeds of his potential downfall are sewn on two different occasions, both of which run counter to his natural instinct.
The first is when he sees a mother using her young son to shoplift in a market. A prostitute in an abusive relationship, the mother is not very good at stealing; neither is her boy. Nishimura rescues them both and ultimately becomes involved with them (as one might expect) in very different ways. He tries to steer the boy away from a life of crime, even as he becomes an extremely reluctant father figure to him.
At the same time, he re-establishes contact with a former friend and partner in crime who is part of a phone-scam operation being run by a high-level crime boss. Against his better judgment, he becomes involved in a home break-in that is ostensibly being performed only for a robbery, but is in fact for a far darker purpose. By the time the job is done, Nishimura is dragged deeper and deeper into the world of organized crime, utilizing his remarkable thievery skills for purposes far beyond random robbery.
In the end, Nishimura’s skills get him into the worst possible kind of trouble; ironically, he must rely upon those same talents to get himself out of trouble as well --- if it is not too late. Still, his future appears to be bleak at best, no matter the outcome.
Western readers may be somewhat unsettled by the book’s pacing, but the narrative is consistently compelling from beginning to end, an up-and-down ride where one is never truly certain what precisely is going to happen next. Nakamura’s imagery --- a tip of the hat and a huge thank you to Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates for their wonderful translation --- is first rate, as he chronicles Nishimura’s all-but-certain fall from life, beginning in mid-slide. Those who like their stories served up dark and grim will hail THE THIEF as the classic it is.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 6, 2012