2012 Books in Translation Other Prizes

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

The ThiefWinner of the 2010 Kenzaburo Oe Prize

Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates

Five words from the blurb: pickpocket, strangers, past, tangle, escape

The Thief is a short, engaging book about a pickpocket who targets rich people on the streets of Tokyo. It vividly captures the roller-coaster of emotion that the pickpocket goes through as he searches for a victim and then skillfully relieves them of their wallet.

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.

Very little actually happens in this short book. The plot is quite simple and revolves around the return of someone from the pickpocket’s past.

The writing quality was excellent and I was gripped to the story throughout, but on reaching the end I was slightly disappointed. Everything was too brief for me and, although I liked the ambiguous ending, a lot of the power was lost due to the subtlety of the writing.  The use of symbolism and other literary devices meant that this book will reveal more on a second reading, but I found the number of unanswered questions a little frustrating.

This isn’t a crime novel in the traditional sense, but instead uses members of the criminal underworld to explore issues of loneliness and belonging. It is a lot more conventional than many Japanese crime novels and actually shares many similarities with last year’s Booker shortlistee, The Lighthouse

The Thief is a well structured piece of observational literature, but it isn’t for anyone who likes everything to be tied up nicely at the end. Recommended to those who enjoy shorter stories that require a bit of thought to fully appreciate them.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

It’s sparsely written, just like its narrator, and it’s rather beautiful. Chasing Bawa

While the crime elements are all neatly in place in this book, it works on a deeper level as well, touching on the notions of psychological and social isolation,  as well as the machinations of power and fate. The Crime Segments

This is a powerful, powerful novel. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time… Dolce Bellezza

To find more Japanese literature reviews head over to Tony’s January in Japan blog.

17 replies on “The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura”

“The Thief is a well structured piece of observational literature, but it isn’t for anyone who likes everything to be tied up nicely at the end.”

Replace ‘The Thief’ with ‘all Japanese literature’, and that’s pretty much the truth 🙂

Still unsure about this one, but I may well cave at some point…

“Replace ‘The Thief’ with ‘all Japanese literature’, and that’s pretty much the truth”
I’m not sure about that. I’ve read quite a few with well wrapped up endings, but The Thief is one of the worst offenders in the “more questions than answers” category. 🙂

Judith, The actual ending is OK. I just wish some of the other narrative threads/questions had been answered over the course of the book. One of the reason I prefer really long books!

I love the sound of it, especially and somewhat surprisingly, considering the premise, the fact that little happens. Similarly to Judith, there are times when a proper wrap up is good and others when open endings work best. Not sure which this would favour, but from what you’ve said it seems the ending works.

Charlie, Yes, the ending does work and I thought the final few pages were very well done. I just wish a few of the other questions had been answered earlier on.

Lindsay, I wouldn’t want to read books like this all the time either! Variety is the most enjoyable way to read and I love the different ideas introduced by Japanese literature.

One of the things that struck me, and continued to ‘plague me’ long after I’d finished, was the issue of fate. It seemed to me that the author was bringing up the idea that being a thief was almost inescapable in the main character’s life. Or, at least that it was an inevitable thing due to fate. Did you get that idea?

Bellezza, Yes, I think fate is a very strong theme in the book. I think much of it is summed up by that final scene where his life is decided by a single coin toss. I thought that was very cleverly done.

Jenners, Yes – it gives a great insight into what it feels like to be a pickpocket. Luckily it doesn’t really explain how to do it – I wouldn’t like to recommend a book that teaches people how to commit crime 🙂

It is a pretty ambiguous novel, isn’t it? I think that’s part of its charm but I can see how frustrating it may be for some. But I really enjoyed it and I’m glad you did too.

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