Lying somewhere between a character study and a traditional thriller, The Thief doesn’t quite transcend the clichés it employs, but is enjoyable nonetheless.
By Fuminori Nakamura
Translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates
One of the most recent prizes targeting literary fiction in Japan is the Oe Kenzaburo Prize. Established in 2006, it marks the fiftieth anniversary of Kenzaburo Oe’s career as a writer and the hundredth anniversary of the Kodansha publishing house. What’s interesting about the award is that so far, there is no prize or real judging committee. Basically, Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe reads a bunch of books by young, intellectual junbungaku writers and decides which one he likes the most. There’s no monetary prize attached, but the winning novel gets translated into English, French, and German, and the winner also participates in an open conversation with Oe.
The Thief is the first of the Oe Prize winners to receive English publication, though it was actually the fourth novel to win the Prize. Author Fuminori Nakamura, born in 1978, is still a fairly young writer, but he has a fairly impressive resume for his age. While still in his twenties, he won the Shincho New Writer’s Prize, the Noma Literary Award for New Writers, and then the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2005. The Thief was originally published in Japan in 2009, winning the Oe Prize in 2010.
It’s hard to judge, then, the literary merit of the Oe Prize. It’s still too young a prize to really see any trends, and Oe deliberately targets relatively young authors, who haven’t spent their lives devoted to the craft of writing. Perhaps it could be seen as the ultimate “new writers” prize—celebrating the best of literary fiction’s young up and comers—but it’ll take a few years of watching these past and future winners grow to make any further judgments. If Nakamura’s The Thief is any indication, however, we can look forward to some fairly interesting and entertaining works.
The Thief is a picaresque novel, following the eponymous, anonymous narrator as he haunts the streets of Tokyo. His skills as a pickpocket are considerable. He wears expensive clothing as to not arouse suspicion; he can recognize the wealthiest targets by their expensive brands and destinations; he knows exactly when they are most vulnerable, distracted, and least sensitive to sticky fingers. He accidentally befriends a boy whose mother forces him to shoplift from the grocery store when he warns the duo they’re about to get caught. But when a pickpocketing acquaintance gets the Thief to take part in one last robbery, organized by some very dangerous people, the Thief’s solitary life is thrown into chaos, and he may not get out of it alive.
While that sounds like a standard, boilerplate crime plot, it’s actually a fairly small part of The Thief as a whole. The Thief is instead a rather quiet, contemplative novel, as the Thief reflects on his life as a low level criminal, the people left behind in his life, and what to do with the boy whose future may end up like his own.
Nakamura injects big, philosophical questions into his pseudo-crime thriller, especially on themes like fate and morality, as well as metaphorical imagery like an impossibly high tower that looms in the distance, looking down on the Thief. The main problem with the novel is that, like these broad examinations on the nature of fate and the idea of doing good through ill begotten means, Nakamura paints with very broad strokes. The anonymity of the Thief makes him almost too vague: because the novel doesn’t have the strong narrative thread that propels most thrillers, The Thief feels sketchy, like a character study, but without a solid character.
Side characters suffer similarly—the looming specter of a woman Saeko weighs heavily in the Thief’s thoughts, but the reader never learns very much about her, besides that they were once romantically involved. She seems to exist merely as a symbol, and a very obvious one at that, but she never becomes a real person. The boy is another obvious symbol, but enough time is spent in the novel between the two that their relationship actually becomes moving, despite the cliché. Lightly hinting at a person’s past seems to be Nakamura’s M.O., but it only works with Kizaki, the leader of the dangerous group that hires the Thief, because his past is so unfathomably dark, the mere hints of his life is enough to send shivers down the spine.
But despite the many clichés, there are some great, well-crafted moments in the Thief, especially in the last third of the novel. Kizaki’s monologue about fate, and the story within the story therein is sublime—the most well-written, thought provoking extended passage in the novel by far—and the relationship between the Thief and the boy is genuinely touching. And Nakamura really proves his skills as a writer in the last few pages, where he writes one of the most exciting, breath-stopping endings to a novel I’ve read in quite a long time.
Overall, The Thief is a very enjoyable, if rather light read, both on a plot and intellectual level. There are some ideas to chew on, but nothing that digs really deep, and anyone looking for a true crime novel may find The Thief to lack the necessary propulsion to find it a real page turner. But as it’s a fairly short novel, The Thief is definitely worth the afternoon or two it takes to dive in. Nakamura’s latest novel, 王国 (“The Kingdom”), apparently takes place in the same narrative world as The Thief, and I certainly enjoyed The Thief enough to check out “The Kingdom” as well, if it ever gets translated.
Originally published February 20, 2012.