The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

“I decided I would keep on stealing until I could no longer see the tower. Sinking lower and lower, deeper and deeper into the shadows. The more I stole, I believed, the further I would move away from the tower. Before long the tension of stealing became more and more attractive. The strain as my fingers touched other people’s things and the reassuring warmth that followed. It was the act of denying all values, trampling all ties. Stealing stuff I needed, stealing stuff I didn’t need, throwing away what I didn’t need after I stole it. The thrill that vanquishes the strange feeling that ran down to the tips of my fingers when my hands reached into that forbidden zone. I don’t know whether it was because I crossed a certain line or simply because I was growing older, but without my realizing it the tower had vanished.” (p. 181)
I’m not sure what the tower stands for. I suspect it’s some sort of moral compass for the thief who steals without remorse. We know little about his past, except that he has stolen since he was a child. That he once loved a married woman named Saeko. And so we walk with him in the streets of Tokyo through this portion of his life. We feel the thrill of stealing, the moment when the wallet which once was lying in some stranger’s pocket is now caught between our thumb and forefinger. We know enough to cause a disturbance, because if two jolts are felt the victim pays attention to the biggest one. He won’t even notice the smallest jolt, the moment of theft, until it’s too late.
But I don’t think the thief is entirely heartless. Almost, but not entirely. He watches a boy and his mother shoplift through the supermarket, and advises them that they’ve been spotted by the store’s detective. The boy instantly attaches himself to the thief, and the thief makes the closest attachment we’re allowed to witness back to the boy. An attachment that at least allows him to arrange for the boy’s placement in a home for children. He knows enough that he is unable to care for the boy himself.
So many issues are raised in this novel. It is wonderfully brief, and spare, much like something Hemingway would write. But, it is packed with dilemmas. Does our past catch up with us, or do we never truly escape from it? Do we control our own lives, or are we controlled by others? Is there redemption of any sort to be found in our concern for others? What happens when we can’t see the tower any longer?

This is a powerful, powerful novel. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time, and probably offer it as a give-away in the months to come. Thanks to SoHo Press for sending The Thief my way.

“I was deeply impressed with The Thief. It is fresh. It is sure to enjoy a great deal of attention.” ~Nobel Prize Winner Kenzaburo Oe

“(A) compelling look at a Tokyo pickpocket’s life…Nakamura’s memorable antihero (is) at once as believably efficient as Donald Westlake’s Parker and as disaffected as a Camus protagonist.” ~Publisher’s Weekly

“Fascinating.” ~Natsuo Kirino (bestselling author of Out)

 

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26 thoughts on “The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura”

  1. Wow this sounds really good!! I'm going to have to check this one out 🙂 Sounds perfect to curl up to with a cup of my new tea and pinch ups 🙂 Which I've been meaning to email you and thank you for but haven't gotten a chance to yet! I still will of course, but wanted to thank you so much. I have already dipped into both and I love them…as much for what they are as for the fact that they came from you 🙂

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  2. So glad that they arrived, Chris, and hopefully in one piece! I've never mailed cookies before, but I figured even if they were crumbs they'd still taste delicious. XO

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  3. I think this would be an excellent choice for a book club. While the story is easy to follow, the lines of it can quite deep. There is much to discuss, interpret, and personalise in this novel.

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  4. This novel isn't dark in that way that some in this genre can be: murder and hide the pieces and general abuse of humanity. I think this was more the exploration of one particular thief's psyche, and the question of fate as it may apply to us all. The part that was most interesting to me was the question that seemed to be underlying it all: do we do what we do because we choose it, or has it somehow been chosen for us?

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  5. Japanese literature isn't for everyone; what I find in it, and appreciate the most, are the qualities of a.) a slice of life b.)a sense of danger c.) an introspection of the psyche. This genre seems to do those things so eloquently.

    Glad you liked the photograph; it was a cool day outside, so I was enjoying some tea with my read. 😉

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  6. Tokyo's presence isn't as detailed as it is in other Japanese books (I'm thinking of Murakami's After Dark). It is in terms of the trains and crowded areas where the 'rich' dwell, but more of the novel seems to focus on the act of thievery as well as the concept of our fate. The whole effect, though, does give (me) a better impression of Tokyo through this character's eyes.

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  7. I love the idea of getting into the mind of someone who lives outside of the margins of society — this must be particularly significant in Japan, where the culture is so completely understood, yet rarely expressed. I am looking forward to reading this!

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  8. I enjoyed this beautifully written review, and this novel sounds like one I might love. I enjoy stories with moral ambiguity and characters who are outsiders.

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  9. Hi Meredith 🙂 I plan to seriously participate in JLC6 this year. Itried to find Japanese authors I like. Yoko Agawa is one author I enjoy reading, however only 3 of her novels are available in English so I went on amazon.fr and found so many. I bought 2 for now. Because. there is no English translation I will write a synopsis + the French title. I wonder why France has so many translations by authors of varied countries…we need these authors translated into the English language, Americans are great readers. EUROPA EDITIONS try but it is a fraction of what is available.

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  10. Okie doke. Thanks! Definitely sounds like an interesting read. I haven't read After Dark – don't think I have a copy of that one – but I'm glad to know it's a good book for reading about Tokyo. I'd like to read some titles like that, in which there's a solid sense of place.

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  11. Thanks for the review!

    I actually started on The Thief (because it won the OE prize)..but I gave up about two chapters because the translation sounded too rigid (I hope it's the translation's fault..and not the original text)…and because I had a flight to catch, and I already stuffed my carry on full with books!

    But your review has convinced me to give it another try, and maybe I can stand the translation this time around. Though I admit the Hemingway reference has me a bit scared…I'm definitely not a Hemingway fan.

    Lilian @ A Novel Toybox

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  12. Lilian, don't be scared by my Hemingway comment. What I meant by that is perhaps what you meant about being rigid: the writing seemed very succinct to me, and I liked that. We weren't bogged down with lots of flowery excess which can sometimes be so boring.

    I hope you do try this again because I found it to be an excellent novel which gave me lots to think about. Especially pertaining to the concept of fate.

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