Nakamura, Fuminori. The Thief.

NY: Soho Press, 2012.

I kind of have a thing about contemporary Japanese fiction. I don’t know why, really, but books by people like Ryu Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Natsuo Kirino, and Mitsuo Kakuta, who are very different from each other in style and subject matter, nevertheless appeal to me on a number of levels.

Of course, I don’t speak or read Japanese, so I have to wait for the English translations. Nakamura has written three novels and won a stack of prestigious awards, but this is his first book available for us gajin.

The nameless narrator is a nonviolent career criminal, a thief and burglar when necessary, but a pickpocket by preference, a trade in which he has considerable talent. He doesn’t really do it for the money, though. Perhaps it’s for “what will happen to me in the end. What happens to people who live the way I do? That’s what I’d like to know.” He’s also beset by iron and stone towers and pylons that haunt his dreams and appear unexpectedly in his peripheral vision — one of several impressionistic elements in the story. And when his girlfriend ODs, he goes out and steals indiscriminately from everyone, even packs of gum and handkerchiefs, to assuage his grief.

So the thief operates independently but still sees Ishikawa, his old mentor, and that’s how he gets caught up in an armed robbery organized by Kizaki, who (he thinks) is a yakuza boss, though he seems awfully intellectual for a hood. The gang he’s suddenly a part of is supposed to just break into an old guy’s house, steal a large amount of money and (more important) a stack of mysterious documents, and split. A little later, the thief learns the victim was a noted politician and that he was killed during the invasion of his home. And shortly after that, a number of the old man’s business and political associates are dying and resigning. Time to get the hell out of Tokyo.

So now he’s somewhere else, lifting wallets from well-dressed pedestrians and railway passengers and waiting to see what’s going to happen next, and whether Ishikawa, who also disappeared the night of the robbery, will ever reappear. And he finds himself inexplicably taking up with a young boy whom he observes shoplifting groceries on his mother’s orders. He covers for the kid and tries to instruct him in some basic thief-craft, but recommends he quit stealing. (Like he would listen, right?) And then, naturally, the thief becomes equally involved with the boy’s slutty mother. And then, between one eye-blink and the next, Kizaki is back. And the thief is working for him now, whether he likes it or not. More than that, his life and future now belong to Kizaki, the great manipulator, whose view of the world as he explains it is truly horrific. Or maybe just realistic. And Kizaki has a little list of tasks he wants the thief to carry out. Or else.

It’s a fascinating story, like an oil painting in very dark colors, and the author’s characterizations are highly original. It’s also a somewhat strange book — with a very strange ending — which is probably why I enjoy Japanese fiction. In any case, I’ll be keeping an eye out for Nakamura’s next translation.

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