Most Japanese novels are difficult to relate to because there is an underlying fatalism that pervades most of these novels which creates a cultural barrier that is difficult for most Westerners to surmount. The Thief by Nakamura is no exception to this general rule. The book which won the 2009 Oe prize in Japan is ably translated into English, but the crime noir quality of this tale about the criminal underbelly of Japan and the underlying fatalism of it main character makes it very difficult to appreciate unless you have some deeper understanding of Japanese culture.
Nishimura, is a pickpocket, weaving his way through the trains, airports and streets of Tokyo looking for rich people to rob, anonymous and unseen and rather polite in his own way, taking the cash from the wallets, then depositing them into a post box, knowing that the Post Office will see to it that the wallets with their driver’s licenses and credit cards are returned to their owners. Given the nature of this life, he is a lone wolf, constantly on the hunt for new prey, without any connections or relationships to hinder him.
This was not always the case, however. Nishimura did have a partner at one time, a man named Ishikawa, but after a disastrous job they did for an illusive and menacing man named Mr. Kizaki, Nishimura has not seen or heard from his partner and has felt more alone and isolated than ever before. He in fact keeps having memory fugue episodes where he apparently steals without ever remembering having done so, only to realize it later when he finds the stolen property in his pocket.
Into this lonely and isolated existence two simultaneous events happen that change Nishimura’s life. At the grocery store he observes a mother trying to teach her son to steal. Seeing that the store security person has already become suspicious, Nishimura intervenes at some risk of exposure to himself. The boy, feeling like he has finally found a mentor latches onto Nishimura and asks for help in becoming a better thief. At the same time, Mr. Kizaki emerges from the shadows and and makes a proposal to Nishimura-a job with a very short time frame. As Nishimura struggles to meet this time deadline we learn in flashbacks what happened in the first disastrous job he and Ishikawa did for Mr. Kizaki and its far reaching consequences.
Mr. Kizaki is an enigmatic character, on one hand he is the consummate criminal- menacing and delusional and on the other he is the one that explains with clarity and persuasion the limits of our ability to choose our own life. Interestingly, it is often the subtle things that are most menacing in Japanese books. Mr. Kizaki is always referred to with the honorific of Mr. and just in that small detail we know the full extent of his otherness and his remoteness to Nishimura, but that is not something that most Western readers would pick up on.
This is a story about the limits of free choice, and an exploration of that age old existential question of “Do I matter?.” For most who read this book the answer, if there is one at all, will not be satisfying.
Brenda’s Rating: ***1/2( 3 1/2 Stars out of 5)
Recommend This Book to: Sharon and Ken
Book Study Worthy?: Yes
Read in ebook format.