Book Reviews

Archive Review: The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura



From Asia Literary Review No. 24, August 2012



THE HERO OF THIS STORY is the eponymous thief, who recounts his life as a pickpocket in Tokyo, and how he moved from petty crime to involvement in a murder. He never tells us his name, and it is pronounced to him only once – much to his surprise because he thought no one knew it. His identity remains in the shadowland of description, just as he remains in the shadows of his victims’ consciousness and at the outer edge of society. Well versed in the legends of famous pick­pockets, he has something of the Robin Hood about him. When he steals a wallet he removes only the cash, wipes the leather of fingerprints and then deposits it in a post box so that it might find its way back to its owner, regardless of what may be left inside: calling cards from male or female prostitutes, artfully stamped pills or incriminating photographs.

     He had always been adept at pinching things but he really found his way when he began to work with another thief, because ‘actually picking pockets isn’t a one-man job. You need partners. Three people is standard. One person to jostle the mark, one person to block other people’s view, one person to lift.’ He and the older, more experienced Ishikawa are famous in their own circles, and it is this fame that leads them to trouble. Ishikawa finds a job working for Kizaki, a local kingpin with dreams of reordering society through plots and subplots: murders and a trail of dead bodies are no hindrance to the ultimate goal. Kizaki also operates in the shadows of society, but believes he has mastery over his own fate, and the fates of those around him. Fate is a recurring theme – is someone manipulating  the thief ’s fate, or is it his fate to be manipulated? And what is the difference? The thief is someone who seems to have no control over his own life, regardless of whether it is fated or not. He is aware of his shortcomings and weaknesses, and understands that his passivity defines his identity. 

     The narrative switches between the present and the thief ’s past with Ishikawa, who disappeared after a robbery they were only peripherally involved in – but which left a murdered man behind. No matter that they were in a van disrobing after the burglary and that their nameless accomplices had wielded the fatal sword. 

     Ishikawa is a spectral figure – because of an earlier involvement in a fraudulent investment group, he had fled the country to avoid arrest. When he returned, ‘he’d acquired a dead person’s identity. He had a new driver’s license and passport and certificate of residence – on the face of it he was a free man. “The official story is that I died in Pakistan, so now my name’s Niimi. That means I was already Niimi when I met you. It’s complicated . . .”’ Indeed it is, because the person who arranged for him to change his name is Kizaki, who demands one last favour in return for granting Ishikawa’s wish to be let out of the game. 

     Later, Kizaki tracks down the thief, who understands that by renewing his involvement with the kingpin he has put himself on the endangered species list. With this in mind, he makes sure he remains detached, not only from his own emotions but also from those around him, including his neighbour’s young and neglected little boy who, like a lost dog, begins to follow the thief around. He’d met the boy and his mother at a supermarket, where he noticed the boy shoplifting groceries to order from his mum’s shopping list. He tells them they’ve been spotted by security and the ne’er­do-well mother begrudgingly heeds his warning. When he later spots the boy stealing again, he begins to teach him some tricks of the trade, while at the same time counselling against a life of crime. ‘You can still start over,’ he tells him. ‘You can do whatever you want. Forget about stealing and shoplifting.’ 

     ‘Why?’ asks the boy, gazing up at him. 

     ‘You’ll never find a place in society.’ 


Fuminori Nakamura, born in 1977, has been a prizewinning author since his debut in 2002 with Ju (A Gun). He won Japan’s prestigious Oe Kenzaburo Prize for Suri (The Thief ), and was awarded the prize by the Nobel Laureate himself. Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates have conveyed the dark nuances of this tale with a tight translation glinting with sharp, spare and at the same time moody prose, and have introduced to an English-language audience an author with a backlist waiting to be enjoyed. 



The Thief is published by Soho Crime in the US and by Constable and Robinson in the UK. 


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