“The Thief” is the first novel by 30-something Japanese wunderkind Fuminori Nakamura to be translated into English. Nakamura’s knees surely must be buckling already under the weight of the awards conferred upon him, including Japan’s shiniest literary trophy, the Oe Prize. But be forewarned: Though elegant, “The Thief” is less a crime novel than a meditation on crime. Plot, that guiltiest of literary pleasures, is in short supply here. Instead, there’s a lot of reflection on the meta-meaning of theft and of a shadow life lived outside convention.
I confess at the outset that reading “The Thief” made me feel awfully slow and big-limbed and literal-minded. I hankered for the meat-and-potatoes home cookin’ of Mickey Spillane, even as Nakamura was furiously serving up his own fusion of Kafka and Dostoevsky.
But you may think Nakamura’s take on crime noir is edgy and innovative. Here, to help you decide, is a taste of the book’s style and minimalist story:
When the novel opens, our unnamed narrator is demonstrating his prowess as a pickpocket by lifting the wallet of an expensively dressed man waiting on a crowded bullet train platform. At the climactic moment, the narrator ruminates rhapsodically: “I breathed in gently . . . 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.”
Our thief is unnamed, probably to underscore the way he glides anonymously through life. Apart from his mentor and a young boy, whom the narrator tries to steer away from a life of crime, the universe here is pretty underpopulated. At some point in the past, the thief had a lover, but she died. Like him, she was haunted by a creepy image of a tall tower. This tower or pylon or spire or whatever is symbolic of Something. Maybe it’s a stand-in for God or fate. Or, maybe it’s just another phallic symbol. Whatever it is, this tower pops up a lot in the novel, and it never brings good news.
Everyday life for our thief is a round of pickpocketing, sleeping and occasional sex, but his empty-but-familiar routine suddenly gets thrown out of joint when his mentor puts him in the path of a sadistic gangster who needs help breaking into a mansion. It turns out the robbery is just a cover story for an even more heinous crime, and our narrator finds himself on the run, trying to evade the long tentacles of the crime boss.
Throughout “The Thief,” Nakamura conjures up a bleak universe where everything looks and feels seedy. Even the most incidental scenes contain a dash of repulsion: When the narrator walks through a garbage-strewn underpass, he touches a plastic garbage bag with his foot and “it sprang back with unpleasant elasticity, like dark meat.”
In keeping with the noir atmosphere, almost all the relationships in the novel are predatory. The exception is the thief’s concern for that adolescent boy. His prostitute mother is forcing the boy to shoplift, and the thief tries to avert an arrest by giving the clumsy kid some lessons in sleight of hand. In the end, though, life turns out to be one big sticky-fingered hand (or is it a tower?) bearing down on everybody.
Give me a good bang-bang, shoot-shoot car chase any day.
Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Fuminori Nakamura
Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates
Soho. 211 pp. $23