by Fuminori Nakamura
Paperback (15 Jan 2013), 304 pages.
Publisher: Soho Press
The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn't even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections... But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can't refuse. It's an easy job: tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of the safe. No one gets hurt. Only the day after the job does he learn that the old man was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. And now the Thief is caught in a tangle even he might not be able to escape.
When I was a kid, I often messed this up. In crowded shops, in other people's houses, things I'd pick up furtively would slip from my fingers. Strangers' possessions were like foreign objects that didn't fit comfortably in my hands. They would tremble faintly, asserting their independence, and before I knew it they'd come alive and fall to the ground. The point of contact, which was intrinsically morally wrong, seemed to be rejecting me. And in the distance there was always the tower. Just a silhouette floating in the mist like some ancient daydream. But I don't make mistakes like that these days. And naturally I don't see the tower either.
In front of me a man in his early sixties was walking towards the platform, in a black coat with a silver suitcase in his right hand. Of all the passengers here, I was sure he was the richest. His coat was Brunello Cucinelli, and so was his suit. His Berluti shoes, probably made to order, did not show even the slightest scuffmarks. His wealth was obvious to everyone around him. The silver watch peeping out from the cuff on his left wrist was a Rolex Datejust. Since he wasn't used to taking the bullet train by himself, he was having some trouble buying a ticket. He stooped forward, his thick fingers hovering over the vending machine uncertainly like revolting caterpillars. At that moment I saw his wallet in the left front pocket of his jacket.
Keeping my distance, I got on the escalator, got off at a leisurely pace. With a newspaper in my hand, I stood behind him as he waited for the train. My heart was beating a little fast. I knew the position of all the security cameras on this platform. Since I only had a platform ticket, I had to finish the job before he boarded the train. Blocking the view of the people to my right with my back, I folded the paper as I switched it to my left hand. Then I lowered it slowly to create a shield and slipped my right index and middle fingers into his coat pocket. The fluorescent light glinted faintly off the button on his cuff, sliding at the edge of my vision. 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. Maintaining the fragile contact between my fingers and the wallet, I sandwiched it in the folded newspaper. Then I transferred the paper to my right hand and put it in the inside pocket of my own coat. Little by little I breathed out, conscious of my temperature rising even more. I checked my surroundings, only my eyes moving. My fingers still held the tension of touching a forbidden object, the numbness of entering someone's personal space. A trickle of sweat ran down my back. I took out my cell phone and pretended to check my email as I walked away.
I went back to the ticket gate and down the gray stairs towards the Marunouchi line. Suddenly one of my eyes blurred, and all the people moving around me seemed to shimmer, their silhouettes distorted. When I reached the platform I spotted a man in a black suit out of the corner of my eye. I located his wallet by the slight bulge in the right back pocket of his trousers. From his appearance and demeanor I judged him to be a successful male companion at a ladies-only club. He was looking quizzically at his phone, his slender fingers moving busily over the keys. I got on the train with him, reading the flow of the crowd, and positioned myself behind him in the muggy carriage. When humans' nerves detect big and small stimuli at the same time, they ignore the smaller one. On this section of track there are two large curves where the train shakes violently. The office worker behind me was reading an evening paper, folded up small, and the two middle-aged women on my right were gossiping about someone and laughing raucously. The only one who wasn't simply traveling was me. I turned the back of my hand towards the man and took hold of his wallet with two fingers. The other passengers formed a wall around me on two sides. Two threads at the corner of his pocket were frayed and twisted, forming elegant spirals like snakes. As the train swayed I pushed my chest close to him as though leaning against his back and then pulled the wallet out vertically. The tight pressure inside me leaked into the air, I breathed out and a reassuring warmth flowed through my body. Without moving I checked the atmosphere in the carriage, but nothing seemed out of order. There was no way I would make a mistake in a simple job like this. At the next station I got off and walked away, hunching my shoulders like someone feeling the cold.
Excerpted from The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura. Copyright © 2012 by Fuminori Nakamura. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Winner of Japan's 2009 Ōe Prize (an award for literary novels judged by Nobel laureate Kenzaburō Ōe), Nakamura's English-language debut chronicles the aftermath of a "perfect crime" in which the titular thief plays a small role. It also delineates the time leading up to and after the moment when the crime's mastermind ensnares him with another three jobs.
Using this spare plot as its basis, Nakamura deftly creates the tale of a Tokyo pickpocket while exploring questions of fate and manipulation. Here, the underworld bears little trace of the glamor that sometimes occurs in works featuring an anti-hero. As this criminal world consumes its members along with its victims, readers are treated to an empathetic portrayal of a man whose desire for life resurfaces under duress.
The thief - whose name is revealed once in a quick aside - robs only the rich, without violence; keeps only the cash; returns the wallets he steals; and helps others - notably a young boy whose mother, a member of the demimonde, has ordered him to shoplift. He appears as a talented but non-threatening everyman whose principles guide his actions. Though the thefts are not ingenious in their execution, they demonstrate the character's ease at gliding through public spaces, the realistic lack of self-awareness of his fellow travelers, and the extent to which he depends on anonymity. It's a lifestyle that proves unsustainable, yet difficult to change when deep entanglement with mysterious elements complicates his escape.
Some of these elements include a recurrent, ominous image of a tower; memories of his past relationship with a woman named Saeko; and Kizaki, the leader of a gang the thief was briefly involved with, who later manipulates the thief simply because he can. In addition, the deaths of several prominent figures have been made possible by the thief's participation in a home invasion, a crime which Kizaki uses to cover up more sinister acts.
Although the minimal background to these events may puzzle some readers, such ambiguity is arguably necessary in a novel that hinges on a detached and unreliable narrator. Shadowy memories and circumstances embody themes of loss and emotional deadening, which arise from existing on the fringes. The thief, who has long made it a practice to operate alone, must struggle with the insistent reminder that it is impossible to separate past from present and to suppress the need for human connection.
Despite its darkness (at one point, in a moment of reflection, the thief declares, "If you can't stop the light from shining in your eyes, it's best to head back down in the opposite direction"), Nakamura imbues the tale with occasional humor as well as interludes that reveal the main character to be less hardened than he seems. The result is a disturbing examination of self-denial, bravado and its consequences, with an impressively rendered twist: the thief becomes a vulnerable - even winning - figure.
Reviewed by Karen Rigby
Readers will be enthralled by this story that offers an extremely surprising ending.
The Thief manages to wrap you up in its pages, tightly, before you are quite aware of it.
Nakamura's memorable antihero, at once as believably efficient as Donald Westlake's Parker and as disaffected as a Camus protagonist, will impress genre and literary readers alike.
Fast-paced, elegantly written, and rife with the symbols of inevitability
Compulsively readable for its portrait of a dark, crumbling, graffiti-scarred Tokyo - and the desire to understand the mysterious thief.
Disguised as fast-paced, shock-fueled crime fiction, The Thief resonates even more as a treatise on contemporary disconnect and paralyzing isolation... Mystery/crime aficionados with exacting literary standards, as well as readers familiar with already-established-in-translation Japanese writers Miyuki Miyabe (Shadow Family), Natsuo Kirino (Out, Grotesque), and Keigo Higashino (Naoko, The Devotion of Suspect X), will especially enjoy discovering Nakamura.
Kenzaburo Oe, Nobel Prize-winning author of A Personal Matter
I was deeply impressed with The Thief. It is fresh. It is sure to enjoy a great deal of attention once translated.
Natsuo Kirino, bestselling author of Edgar-nominated Out and Grotesque
Fascinating. I want to write something like The Thief someday myself.
Once known as Edo and renamed in the late 1860s, Tokyo - the capital of Japan - is a densely populated metropolis that has over 12 million inhabitants in the city proper and approximately 36 million people in the larger metropolitan prefecture. Located in the Kant? region, it is comprised of 23 wards, as well as 62 municipalities, which are served by over 500 train stations. Tokyo's electric trains, employed by locals and commuters alike, are known for their efficiency as well as their aesthetics.
Mentioned in The Thief are the Marunouchi line, which travels to the heart of Tokyo, a commercial and tourist center and also home of the Imperial Palace; Shinjuku Station (pictured), a major hub and, according to Guinness World Records, the world's busiest, boasting over 3.6 million visitors per day; Shinjuku, often portrayed in neon-lit, Hollywood scenes of Japan such as those in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation; Shibuya, known for its fashionable teen culture; Gotanda and Ebisu, both of which are stops along the Yamanote line that loops through Tokyo's city centers.
As a part of the Tokyo Bureau of Transportation's campaign to end rudeness on subway cars, the Tokyo Metro requests that riders silence their cell phones while on the trains. Promotional posters also remind passengers of proper train-riding etiquette: no drunken behavior, no loud music, and no littering, among other courtesies. They ask you to "please, do it at home."
Interestingly, Tokyo Metro has also introduced "women-only" cars during the morning rush hour "so that women, elementary school students and younger children can ride with a sense of security." Boarding platforms have pink "Women Only" signs posted indicating the designated trains.
Did you know?
- Approximately one third of the world's train passengers are Japanese.
- The use of computerized melodies (sometimes specific to their locales) on Japanese trains is common; some of them are theme songs from animated cartoons.
- One train, the Seibu 30000 series (pictured below), was designed with children in mind. Known as the "egg train" or the "smile train," it features a repetition of curved shapes, uses orange and white in the interior, and received the Kids Design Award in 2009.
By Karen Rigby