Originally published as 掏摸 (Suri) in 2009.
English translation published in 2012.
This book has a sister volume, Kingdom, which was translated in the same year. The two stories can apparently be read in either order.
A literary crime masterpiece that follows a Japanese pickpocket lost to the machinations of fate. Bleak and oozing existential dread, The Thief is simply unforgettable.
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.
A very short but powerful exploration of the life of a thief with strong characters and thoughtful development of themes.
The Thief is told from the perspective of a nameless thief who has supported himself since his teen years by picking pockets and shoplifting. He is good at what he does, knowing how to evade the eyes of store detectives and the police, though he has started to not even realize when he does it, occasionally finding wallets in his pockets he doesn’t remember taking.
Though he has more than enough to survive, the thief lives a solitary existence. He has no family or friends beyond a couple of fellow pickpockets he has worked with in the past. When one of those, Ishikawa, tells him that he has been told he must recruit him to help out with a heist the thief agrees. The job is supposed to be a simple one where the gang steal some money and papers from a safe and they pull it off with ease but the next day they learn that the victim was brutally murdered after they left.
The book is a short one and while I would suggest that it is more focused on character than plotting. I will say that I do not expect that readers will be surprised at the general direction of the story but that the details and the development of theme, combined with the novel’s brevity, make for a surprisingly weighty read.
I had only read one other Nakamura novella prior to this one, The Gun, which was his very first work. That was of a similar length and was also clearly intended as a character study but where that work built a sense of dread about where the story was headed, inching slowly towards a grim inevitability, this story feels quite different. Certainly we will be aware of the danger facing the protagonist but where The Gun features a character descending into obsession and inhumanity, here we have a character who clearly is searching for the light, even if he knows he will never escape his lifestyle.
This idea is most clearly shown in his actions towards a pair of characters he encounters at several points in the story. His actions, while not exactly heroic, show him in a generally positive light and establish him as far more likeable than the protagonist in The Gun. In other words, I think readers will want him to survive and hope that he finds a way out of his predicament, even if we recognize that this seems unlikely.
While we do not learn a lot of detail about the thief’s background, we do become quite versed in his lifestyle. Nakamura carefully describes different aspects of pickpocketing and thievery, painting a convincing picture of that life and giving the reader a sense of what it would be like to live that way. The material feels well-researched and there is even a little interesting background about some noteable historical pickpockets and thieves, helping flesh out that world for readers even more.
Though the bulk of the story explores the character’s relationship with his chosen profession, there are some developments that compel him to action. This involves the introduction of a figure who serves as the antagonist of the piece though I think that term is not entirely accurate to his role within the story. This character’s appearance, while brief, feels substantial because they are not just representing an obstacle for the thief to overcome but because of the attitudes they express about everyone other than themselves.
Key developments happen pretty quickly and information learned fills in many of the gaps for us, helping the reader understand exactly what happened though a few of the broader details remain sketchy – no doubt because they aren’t really relevant to the thief’s story or the broader themes being discussed. This story is not, after all, about the crime but about the effect it has on the criminal.
It builds up to a rather powerful finish that some will doubtlessly find frustrating, though I found it quite intriguing. The ending provides a clear statement of the antagonist’s perspective and philosophy but Nakamura leaves a tiny sliver of space for the reader to consider and reject it. This is not exactly an open-ended conclusion – it does tie up several loose ends quite tidily. Instead it represents a sort of philosophical challenge to the reader, encouraging a judgment from the reader. As an exploration of theme it is a highly effective ending but those principally interested in the narrative may feel a little underwhelmed.
Which I suppose brings me to the question of genre.
One of the most tiresome discussions that people get into about this book is whether it is crime fiction at all. Those arguing this view typically suggest that the book should be read as literary fiction. The reason that this is tiresome is that unless you are merchandising this in a bookshop or library the question is entirely academic. I would suggest that you can have equally rewarding experiences reading it as either of those two forms though personally I would suggest that it is both.
Whether you come to this for an exploration of the human condition or to read a criminous tale of a safe-cracking gone wrong, I think this is a fascinating and worthwhile read. I far preferred this to The Gun and hope to get around to its similarly short sister volume, The Kingdom, at some point soon.
I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.