Monday, December 1, 2014

THE THIEF :: Fuminori Nakamura

I had heard of The Thief, but it was the opportunity to meet Fuminori Nakamura at this year's Bouchercon that pushed it to the top of my stack. I found Nakamura to be impossibly charming, even as he described learning to pick his friends' pockets as "research" for this book. The Thief of the title is a professional pickpocket in Tokyo, a young man who makes his living moving anonymously and disconnected among the masses, a master at blending in and picking just about anything from anyone at any time, at times not even remembering he's done it:

The mannequin and I were dressed the same. I had no interest in clothes, but people in my line of work can't afford to stand out. You have to look prosperous so that no one suspects you. You have to wear a lie, you have to blend into your environment as a lie. The only difference between me and the store dummy was the shoes. Keeping in mind that I might have to run away, I was in sneakers.

At the start of the novel, the Thief's (his name is mentioned only once -- to his horror as he has worked to remain anonymous -- thus it feels more appropriate to refer to him as the Thief here) past has come back to haunt him. Some time ago, his prior partner, Ishikawa, talked the Thief into doing one last job before Ishikawa escaped from the city. The job was for an ominous local gangster, Kizaki, just the man Ishikawa was trying to escape in fear for his life. Against his better judgment, but really without much choice, the Thief takes part in the caper, which, of course, is not all it seems.

When Kizaki comes calling on the Thief again, he's caught in an impossible position, forced once again to leave behind his solitary practices in order to help others, including a young boy who has attached himself to the Thief and in whom the Thief sees some of his prior self. What follows is a tense game of cat and multiple mice that had my stomach knotted by the end game. The Thief describes his profession as "the act of denying all values, trampling all ties." But as the story proceeds, he is forced to face issues of fate, isolation, humanity, and connection, as he determines how to proceed.

Nakamura has a gift for creating an incredible sense of setting with few words. Translated from the author's native Japanese, I have to believe little, if anything, was lost in the translation. A relatively short book at 211 pages, Nakamura does not sell the story short, but manages to infuse it with mood, tension, and desperation without much fooling around. The following passage is representative of how Nakamura is able to put the reader smack in the middle of gritty Tokyo, providing a 360 degree sense of the surroundings in just a few sentences:

Occasionally a bike would pass us, but at this hour of the night the tunnel was quiet. Coffee cans and the wreckage of rotten lunch containers lay beneath the graffiti. Insects flitted in front of my face and I brushed them away with my hand as we walked deeper inside. The crunch of our footsteps echoed feebly under the low ceiling. Two small black plastic bags lay in the middle of the passage, their contents mysterious. When I touched one with my foot it sprang back with unpleasant elasticity, like dark meat.

Winner of the 2010 Oe Prize (awarded in Japan to the best novel which contains the best 'literary words') and the 2014 David L. Goodis Award for Noir Fiction, The Thief is well worth picking up (no pun intended) and I'll be surprised if, like me, you don't want to go out and learn the art of pickpocketing when you're done.  If nothing else, you're going to be more conscious of where you keep your wallet.

STREET SENSE: Recommended for anyone who enjoys confident, lean prose used to tell a gritty story about something of an antihero and his obstacles. If you like ruminating over the issue of fate, all the better.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Her clothes lay on the floor like a flattened corpse.

COVER NERD SAYS: I have to admit, this cover did not move me to pick up The Thief. To me, it read a bit like punk electronica (is that even a thing?), with the out of the ordinary lighting choice on the runner's image. But I'm glad I was won over by Nakamura's personality or I would have missed out on a super read.


Pop Culture Nerd said...

I've been meaning to read this for years. Your review made me push it up my list. I want to read more Japanese crime fic after my recent experience with Keigo Higashino, who also has "thinky stuff" in his books.

I'm disappointed I didn't get to meet Nakamura at B'con. I talked to others who did and they had the same reaction as you.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I have, too, PCN. I even have the audiobook on my library list, but never pulled the trigger. He was so nice I bought The Thief and a newer book, figuring the chances of meeting him again were slim. I hope he comes to another B'Con, we was a fantastic panelist. He and his interpreter were both funny and adorable. Let me know what you think if you give it a try!

Pop Culture Nerd said...

Did you buy WINTER or EVIL/MASK?

Gretchen Beetner said...

I bought one of his other books which was towards the top of my unread pile but now may need to get bumped up!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

If you bought Last Winter We Parted like I did, it's also very short. You can read his in a day or so if you have the time. Good little gritty packages. Let me know what you think when you read the one you have!

Chris La Tray said...

This sounds great. I'm going to keep my eyes open for it....

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I really think you might dig it. I'll keep you posted on the other title of his I have, I'm really looking forward to getting to it now. Short and lean, right in my wheelhouse.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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