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Review of Fuminori Nakamura's The Thief

By Gabino Iglesias

The buzz surrounding Fuminori Nakamura's The Thief reached my ears way before I got my hands on it. Besides earning Nakamura Japan’s top literary trophy, the Oe Prize, the book collected an array of honors that turned its author into a rising star. And the accolades didn't stop in Japan. Here in the US, the book has been confirmed as a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in the Mystery/Thriller category and will be honored at the LA Times Festival books on April 20. The awards made me curious, but I've been disappointed by award-winning tomes many times and feared the narrative would not live up to my expectations (expectations being a terrible thing to have whenever you approach a book). After reading The Thief, I can say it deserved every trophy it received.

The narrative centers around an unnamed narrator who makes a living as a pickpocket in the streets of Tokyo. He has worked on his craft for years and the end result is a fast, efficient thief whose bland suit and everyday haircut make him a ghost, a shadow, a perfectly forgettable figure that slithers in and out of streets, crowds, and subway cars. Stealing wallets from strangers is good business, but our narrator is unhappy, unfulfilled. He has no family and no friends. However, he does have a few connections from his past, and those are the ones that come haunt him in the present. Ishikawa, the man who taught him most of what he knows, offers the narrator an easy job that pays a lot of money. As part of a larger group, they break into a house, scare the man inside, and steal some documents. No one is supposed to get killed and the pickpocket walks out of the house sure that the job was a success. Unfortunately, the man of the house, a prominent politician, is murdered. Soon the thief learns he's in way over his head and his future is bleaker than he could ever imagine.

More than a crime novel, The Thief is a narrative that delves deep into the meaning of theft and the nature of justice. Nakamura opted for a barely-there plot and then filled the pages with philosophy and a character study of a man plagued by ennui. In the resulting narrative, guns aren't as important as ideas. The thief is a drifting, disconnected figure floating around in a city where people seem to be as distant from each other as he is from them. Regardless of what his new and very dangerous situation throws at him, the protagonist is just as bothered by his isolation, and that makes for a truly engrossing read.

Surprisingly, the structure of the novel is not its only unique element. Nakamura also deconstructs the classic view of a clean, high-tech Tokyo and replaces it with a filthy, too-real version of it: a city full of pachinko parlors, businessmen with wallets full of escort business cards, dirty fountains, corrupt politics, grimy alleys, child abuse, violent deaths, and single mothers turning tricks and dreaming of ways of getting away.

The Thief is short and compelling. The narrator is a likeable antihero who, in spite of his serious case of world-weariness, still manages to be a good guy as he gives money away, steals only from the rich, and tries to save a little boy from a life of crime. Japanese crime fiction has a new star, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he does next.