21 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

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.

10 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kathryn Longenbach on Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy, which is translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon and is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kathryn Longenbach is a rising senior at Hamilton College. She is
pursuing a double major in English and art history. Kathryn spent the
past semester studying in Italy and is now an intern here at Open
Letter. This is Kathryn’s first review for threepercent.

Here’s part of her review:

Umberto Eco introduces Inventing the Enemy as a compilation of “occasional writings” (xi); indeed, the essays in this collection were written intermittently throughout the past decade and expound upon a vast array of subject matters. Several of the essays were originally presented as lectures at various gatherings (ranging from film festivals to scholarly conferences) while others first appeared as articles in an assortment of Italian publications. Certain pieces are actually assemblages of multiple works: “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” combines three of Eco’s past lectures and writings. This variety of sources generates the diverse themes of these essays, which range from a study of the various uses (both physical and symbolic) of fire to an inspection of current issues such as censorship and abortion; Eco gives the sense that there is no topic too provocative or too trivial.

Inventing the Enemy acquires its title from the initial essay in the collection. Here, Eco develops a theme of his earlier novel, The Prague Cemetery, by demonstrating how the existence of an enemy is crucial to a nation’s success—so crucial, in fact, that if an enemy does not exist, a nation must create one. Such a target may well be an outsider, but people can apply the term “enemy” even to an insider who conducts himself differently than those around him (as evidence, Eco cites several examples such as the Church’s persecution of heretics). Eco maintains that this creation of an adversary is unavoidable:

Click here to read the entire review.

10 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Umberto Eco introduces Inventing the Enemy as a compilation of “occasional writings” (xi); indeed, the essays in this collection were written intermittently throughout the past decade and expound upon a vast array of subject matters. Several of the essays were originally presented as lectures at various gatherings (ranging from film festivals to scholarly conferences) while others first appeared as articles in an assortment of Italian publications. Certain pieces are actually assemblages of multiple works: “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” combines three of Eco’s past lectures and writings. This variety of sources generates the diverse themes of these essays, which range from a study of the various uses (both physical and symbolic) of fire to an inspection of current issues such as censorship and abortion; Eco gives the sense that there is no topic too provocative or too trivial.

Inventing the Enemy acquires its title from the initial essay in the collection. Here, Eco develops a theme of his earlier novel, The Prague Cemetery, by demonstrating how the existence of an enemy is crucial to a nation’s success—so crucial, in fact, that if an enemy does not exist, a nation must create one. Such a target may well be an outsider, but people can apply the term “enemy” even to an insider who conducts himself differently than those around him (as evidence, Eco cites several examples such as the Church’s persecution of heretics). Eco maintains that this creation of an adversary is unavoidable:

It seems we cannot manage without an enemy. The figure of the enemy cannot be abolished from the processes of civilization. The need is second nature even to a mild man of peace. In his case the image of the enemy is simply shifted from a human object to a natural or social force that in some way threatens us and has to be defeated. (17)

While such discrimination against a person or a belief often amounts to tragedy, Eco maintains the necessity of the enemy through the end of this essay. He asserts that the existence of an enemy creates a sense of community and nationalism that is essential to a country, one of the more provocative claims that Eco makes about society as a whole.

In several of the succeeding essays, Eco moves away from modern society and heads into a more mystifying realm. The piece “Absolute and Relative” explores various philosophies relating to the concepts introduced in the title. While Eco explains theories regarding the absolute and the relative, however, he simultaneously demonstrates how neither term can be exactly comprehended. He explains that, if an absolute exists, “it is neither imaginable nor attainable” (43) and is therefore outside the realm of human understanding. He also maintains that “different people mean different things when they talk about relativism,” (37) suggesting the concept cannot possess a single definition. The reader is left without the satisfaction of solving the mysteries of the absolute and the relative; however, the process of exploring these concepts is entirely fulfilling in its own right.

The subsequent essay, “The Beauty of the Flame,” focuses on a more tangible concept—fire. It is almost immediately clear, however, that to Eco fire is no less mystifying than the absolute and the relative: “As well as a physical phenomenon, [fire] becomes a symbol, and like all symbols is ambiguous, polysemic, evoking different meanings according to the circumstances” (46). Moreover, the “meanings” of fire tend to contradict one another. Fire can help sustain life, but can also destroy it. It can represent the divinity of God and his Kingdom, but also has a prominent place in the depiction of Hell. By demonstrating how fire possesses such vastly conflicting traits, Eco enriches a seemingly comprehensible subject with intriguing mystery.

A later essay in Inventing the Enemy, “No Embryos in Paradise,” moves away from this elusiveness, yet remains particularly provocative. In this piece, Eco examines St. Thomas Aquinas’s theories regarding embryos and their souls (or lack thereof). Eco maintains that he is not taking a stance on any issues such as abortion or stem cells; rather, this essay serves solely to examine Thomas’s beliefs. In short, he maintains that an embryo is not endowed with a rational soul at the moment of conception:

Thomas has a very biological view about the formation of the fetus. God introduces the soul only when the fetus acquires, stage by stage, first a vegetative soul and then a sensitive soul. Only at that point, in a body already formed, is the rational soul created…therefore the embryo only has a sensitive soul. (90)

Eco goes on to explain Thomas’s various defenses of this view. In addition, he addresses how this belief would affect other topics in Christian doctrine, such original sin and resurrection. Thomas’s views, though formulated hundreds of years ago, add to the fascinating pool of opinions regarding the soul of an unborn child that are a significant cause of international debate in the modern world.
While several subsequent essays in Inventing the Enemy also touch on current controversies (“Censorship and Silence” discusses various means of restricting the media while “Thoughts on WikiLeaks” touches on the WikiLeaks scandal), Eco uses various others to explore the world of literature. “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” discusses the characteristics of Victor Hugo’s writing. Eco surveys the author’s various works, demonstrating how Hugo takes features seen throughout the Romantic movement—“the temptation and fascination of sin” and the “passage from the depths of poverty to the magnificence of the court” (106) among others—and exaggerates everything to create his touted “poetics of excess.” Eco’s essays “Fermented Delights” and “Ulysses: That’s All We Needed…” also focus on literature: the former delves into the works of Piero Camporesi while the latter discusses reviews of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

There are several other essays in this collection, each with its own characteristics and merits. The great range in subject matter could put Inventing the Enemy in danger of seeming overly sporadic; however, the pieces complement each other in subtle ways, making them each seem to be part of the larger whole. These occasional writings serve as a window into the singularity of a fascinating mind at work.

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