The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

16 October, 2012

Maintaining the fragile contact between my finger and the wallet, I sandwiched it in the folded newspaper. Then I transferred the paper to my right hand and put it in the inside pocket of my own coat. Little by little I breathed out, conscious of my temperature rising even more. I checked my surroundings, only my eyes moving. My fingers still held the tension of touching a forbidden object, the numbness of entering someone’s personal space. A trickle of sweat ran down my back.

Winner of the Kenzaburo Oe Prize in 2010, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief is a sublime reflection on the nature of crime rather than a thrilling mystery. Nevertheless, it kept me turning the pages as I sought the conclusion to the protagonist’s dilemma.

The Thief (Suri or Pickpocket in Japanese) is the tale of a Nishimura, a loner whose sole purpose of existance is the thrill of stealing from another person without them noticing. Nishimura has perfected pickpocketing to an artform and this talent, together with his friendship with Ishikawa ulitmately leads him into a vortex of crime from which he cannot escape.

Nishimura himself isn’t a violent man. And yet his association with Ishikawa, a genius thief, brings him into contact with a sinister backroom figure who enjoys manipulating events behind the scenes and who orchestrated their last job which resulted in them going on the run. With no family ties or close friendships, Nishimura is able to escape but unable to stay away from Tokyo for long. Upon his return he is sought after by his ex-colleagues and also strikes up a tenuous friendship with a lonely and neglected boy which ultimately leads him to his present dilemma. Do one more job, or else.

There’s a sense of stillness in Nakamura’s novel. Like something happening in slow motion where sound ceases and you can only watch as a collision occurs, slowly, inevitably. The protagonist, Nishimura, is a social outcast. Someone who, from a young age, felt he was outside normal, noisy society. Although he is solitary, he isn’t necessarily lonely. He doesn’t have a grudge against society or want revenge. He’s happy doing what he’s good at doing, stealing. And he could have gone on this way if he hadn’t interacted with anyone else. First, his friend Ishikawa. Then the little boy. In a sense, it’s chilling to see that you can never escape from your interactions with people. As long as someone remembers you, they’ll find you. Nothing too exciting happens in this novel, but you will close the book feeling like you’ve tapped into Nishimura’s existential rabbit hole. It’s as though he is Alice, falling, falling, falling and unable to stop. It’s sparsely written, just like its narrator, and it’s rather beautiful.

One of the things I felt when reading The Thief was a sense of paranoia everytime I stepped outside because you learn a whole lot about pickpocketing. Basically, if you’ve been targeted by a pro, you have NO chance!

I would like to thank Corsair for kindly sending me this book to review.

I read this as part of Japanese Literature Challenge 6 and R.I.P. VII.

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10 Responses to “The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    oh I feel the same I get very parnoid when I go to big cities about being pickpocketed ,all the best stu


  2. Sounds like an intriguing read, hate that feeling when pickpockets are around, when our radar goes off and we don’t know where the threat is coming from. Never ignore those instincts!

  3. buriedinprint Says:

    The criminal milieu, the sense of community, makes for such an interesting read when that aspect is allowed to take shape, when it’s not just a single person seeming to act alone. I’ve read another book about a pickpocket, too (acting alone, though), City Man by Howard Akler, which was set in Union Station in Toronto, through which I regularly travel. It certainly changed my view of things at the time and it lingers still!

  4. Gavin Says:

    The Thief sounds really interesting, I hope my library has it!

  5. Chinoiseries Says:

    Great review, Sakura, I think that the original take of this book – on the nature of crime as opposed to just another crime thriller – will appeal to me as well.

    It’s an unsettling thought though, to know that professional thieves have ways of stealing from you without you realising it until it’s too late…

  6. kissacloud Says:

    It’s happened to me and my mother, on different occasions!

    What I love about a lot of Japanese lit is the sparse prose and the stillness.

  7. Novroz Says:

    I love your review a lot. I am not sure I am interested with the book…I more intrigued with the words you chose to review this book. It might sound weird but that’s the truth 😉

    The sense of stillness is a great sentence to describe a book.

  8. sakura Says:

    I’m glad it’s not just me that’s affected in this way after reading a book. However, I did feel it’s a good way of learning about the pickpocket’s tricks, just so we can be more vigilant!


  9. […] 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 […]


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