Fuminori Nakamura is no stranger to the world of literature; his works have received much critical praise throughout Japan and have been honored by various literary awards. Nakamura’s The Thief, however, is the first of his novels to be published in English. Winner of the prestigious Oe Prize, The Thief follows a nameless pickpocket through Tokyo. While the reader witnesses events ranging from petty shoplifting to cold-blooded murder, this is by no means a typical crime thriller. Instead of focusing on the scenes of action, Nakamura explores the convoluted psychological and physical sensations of a pickpocket’s world.
The thief is a very solitary character. He occasionally remembers a past lover named Saeko and a fellow pickpocket named Ishikawa; beyond them, however, it seems as if the thief has rarely interacted with others. He does narrate the novel, allowing the reader first-hand access to his thoughts as well as to his physical perceptions. The reader is able to interact with the thief in a very exclusive way, and it soon becomes hard to condemn him, however illegal his pursuits. This sympathy is not so much due to an understanding or approval of the thief’s motivations—he rarely attempts to defend his lifestyle; in fact, he often finds himself stealing for the mere thrill of it instead of as a means of survival. Rather, the reader becomes so intimate with the thief’s thoughts and feelings that it is becomes possible to forgive his moral imperfection.
The novel begins with the thief casually stealing wallets from various members of the Japanese elite. Nakamura renders these acts with scrupulous detail, including the various physical sensations that stealing evokes. After explaining each pre-meditative step involved in an incident of pick pocketing, the thief begins to put his plan into action:
I breathed in gently and held it, pinched the corner of the wallet and pulled it out. A quiver ran from my fingertips to my shoulder and a warm sensation gradually spread throughout my body. I felt like I was standing in a void, as though with the countless intersecting lines of vision of all those people, not one was directed at me. (3)
The reader understands the strange excitement that the thief is feeling while committing a crime.
While the thief continues pick pocketing in this manner throughout the novel, it soon becomes evident that the thief’s criminal tendencies are not limited to the mere stealing of wallets. This is not, however, by his own choice—a man named Kizaki coerces the thief, along with Ishikawa and another man named Tachibana, into participating in an elaborate armed robbery in which someone is killed. Nakamura presents Kizaki as a terrifyingly powerful man, one whose past crimes seem to transcend the wildest dreams of a pickpocket; it is clear that his demands should not be declined by anyone who values his life. This event is a pivotal moment of the novel: the thief is now involved in Kizaki’s sinister, bloody world of crime.
The thief attempts to return to his previous life of solitude but finds it impossible to do so. Fear of Kizaki is one major reason for this—Ishikawa has mysteriously disappeared and the thief is afraid for his own life. Another reason, however, comes in the form of a two complicated characters, a young boy and his mother. They are very poor and resort to theft and prostitution as their means of survival. After a series of chance meetings, the thief begins to develop a fascinating relationship with the mother and child. The mother seems to remind him of Saeko, the only woman from the thief’s past whom he ever recalls. In the boy, the thief sees a small child doomed to the miserable life of a pickpocket, and he is possessed by an unexpected desire to help him. Both relationships are peculiar: the thief seems to be somewhat disgusted with the woman’s lifestyle and finds the presence of the child occasionally irritating and unwelcome.
These relationships are an appreciated development in the novel, enhancing the multi-faceted character of the thief. They are also, however, a key piece in the thief’s decline. Just as this new, tender side of the thief is exposed, Kizaki comes back into his life and orders him to participate in a series of near-impossible tasks. If the thief refuses to do so or fails in his attempts, Kizaki will kill him. In addition Kizaki uses the thief’s new relationships to his advantage: he threatens to kill the young boy and his mother if the thief does not complete the assignments. He chastises the thief for giving him the opportunity to do so, saying, “Even though you’ve chosen this lifestyle, you still seek attachments. That’s the height of stupidity. You’d be much better off if you were truly free” (133).
With fear as his motivation, the thief sets off to follow Kizaki’s orders. Again, Nakamura describes every meticulous detail of the thief’s actions, allowing the reader to observe his anxiety and frustration, both in planning and in performing each operation, first-hand. The remainder of the novel is incredibly suspenseful, as the thief experiences several triumphs alongside numerous setbacks. At times, it seems as if he will do the impossible and succeed in his various quests while at others it feels certain that the thief is doomed to fall at the remorseless hands of Kizaki.
Regardless, the thief continues to fight for his life and for the lives of his solitary acquaintances through the shocking final pages of the book. Nakamura succeeds in creating a complicated crime novel in which the focus is not on the crimes themselves but rather on the psychology and physicality of the criminal. The book’s power inheres in the voice of the thief, which is itself as meticulously rendered as the thief’s every action.