Review: The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura book cover
The Thief (2009) by Fuminori Nakamura, newly translated into English, is crime noir with an existential twist, set on the streets of Tokyo. The narrator, whose real name is alluded to only once, goes nameless throughout the novel and is known primarily as ‘the thief’. A pick pocket, the thief is an artist of petty crime. He steals from the rich and the unpleasant to make a living. Well versed in the history and craft of his profession, the thief’s life moulds effortlessly with his work: he is a loner without connection to the world and who can pass through a room, a crowded street, a city, unnoticed. So practiced is he that the thief steals by instinct, barely engaging his mind throughout his work, and so it runs onto to other thoughts: more profound and metaphysical issues. It is these streams of consciousness that the reader is made party too throughout as the thief goes about his routine. But, when he makes a rare emotional connection with a young boy, the thief leaves himself vulnerable and, after meeting an old friend, is pulled into dangerous circles, mixing with gangsters who will play with his life as though it is meaningless. They force the thief to perform a number of increasingly difficult thefts in order to save his life, but who is truly in control of the thief’s destiny; himself, the gangsters, fate or something larger?

The thief is a loner, trapped in a solitary existence and burdened by his own sense of ennui. Living life on the margins of society, he leaves no mark on the world; he is a nameless, faceless apparition that silently haunts the chaos which surrounds him; he represents the marginalised Other. The grimy world of the novel is a harsh place where almost all the relationships are predatory and the world is indifferent to one’s existence. The thief has only one real emotional attachment during the course of the narrative and it is this that the gangsters leverage to manipulate and control him – an interesting comment on the dangers and vulnerabilities of emotional connections in a life lived without them. Theft itself is used predominantly as a rumination on possession and ownership, and the morality of one’s position to them.

There are numerous reflections on the role that fate plays in one’s life and the novel becomes a meditation on a life lived outside of society, beyond the reach of conventional morality and social influences. The theme of fate is carried through right to the novel’s ambiguous conclusion, the thief left in the uncertain land between life and death – where, after all, he has been from the novel’s first page.

Nakamura’s prose is elegant but stripped down to a stark minimalism. This works well with the protagonist’s sense of ennui, but also strips the setting of any individuality; the thief could have been operating in any of the world’s major cities, and this speaks to the universality of his condition. There is poetry in the prose too however, a mix of beauty with the indifferent that comes to represent the thief’s own mentality. There was a certain jarring suddenness to many of the key events as the novel spiralled towards its conclusion, and this only added to the writing’s potency and the sense of the thief’s thin grasp on existence.

Some of the dialogue is very weak, with huge amounts of exposition and a very unnatural rhythm to many of the conversations – it’s hard to say whether there is something lost in the translation or whether this is simply a stylistic trope, either of Nakamura’s or of Japanese fiction in general, either way it reads badly to the Western ear.

Overall, there is a sense that the constituent elements of the novel are all slightly too thin to make this a wholly satisfying read; it lacks the punch of crime fiction, but neither does it have the depth of truly moving philosophy. It is a half-breed, but an intelligent, unusual, and well-considered piece of writing.

I enjoyed this; it's short and a tad unsatisfying overall, but it's an enjoyable read and something a bit different.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Thief on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Thief on Amazon (US)

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Charlie said...

I had to double check the author's name as I read this, as it does sound like a sort of commentary of the western world and how we are at the moment. It's a pity that the structure and style didn't work as well, maybe it is that the translation isn't too good.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Possibly, although I certainly wouldn't say it failed altogether. If nothing else, The Thief is something different, and I would have no problem recommending it to anyone. :)

Irving Podolsky said...

I too was thinking about the task of the translator when reading your review.

How does one capture the "voice" of the writer when replacing English words for the original Japanese?

How much latitude is allowed in a re-write when constructing the beats in description and dialogue?

I imagine that the Japanese language uses a totally different way of processing thoughts!

When I construct sentences in my own work, I'm constantly swapping words with different syllables to build a flowing rhythm. Perhaps the translator had limited choices in that regard.

Structure and characterization? THAT would be easier.


Matthew Selwyn said...

Yes, it's an interesting question. This certainly has the dulled prose that is a feature of much existential literature, but this could equally be down the the translation. But most of the translated writing that I have read is on similar topics so it's a little hard for me to judge.

Although the rhythms, etc. must be hard to replicate, I think translating into English probably gives the translator the best chance to express the original sentiment, due to the sheer volume of words available (it's the most expressive language in the world, so they say).

It's always important to remember just what a big role a translator plays in work like this - almost like a screen-writer translating a book to a new medium, the translator really is creating a new piece of art in many ways.

Harvee Lau said...

I enjoyed the book quite a bit and was glad that it was not totally noir but ended with a glimmer of hope in that coin flipping through the air. This insertion of a sort of redemption could have made the character seem a bit unrealistic.

Anonymous said...

Agree with you it's something different and a worthwhile read.

Matthew Selwyn said...

@Harvee Lau & @ jiescribano

Thanks for stopping by - hope you enjoyed my ramblings.

Harvee - I definitely think the ending was fitting and in-keeping with the rest of the novel. Like you, I certainly wasn't looking for any redemption at the end.

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