One Japanese tradition was quick to capture me the first weeks of my long stay there and happily it is one that has taken hold of many Americans since the arrival of large bookstores with cafés, armchairs and sofas. Bookstores in Japan do not allow coffee or drinks and sitting down is out of the question, but apart from those restrictions customer-browsers are welcome to stand at the shelves and read books, magazines, or comics all day long. They call it tachiyomi, a compound verb that literally means ‘standing and reading.’ A common exchange among friends is something like, “Hey, what have you been doing?” “I’ve been in Kinokuniya reading magazines.” Reading a new release yesterday, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, I wondered with its fast-paced story and short page count how many in Japan will enjoy this book tachiyomi style.
Fuminori Nakamura is young writer who at thirty-five has already won four of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards, most recently the 2010 Kenzaburô Ôe Prize for his novel The Thief. It is the only novel of Nakamura’s to be translated into English thus far and is one fans of noir crime fiction will revel in, especially those curious about how contemporary Japanese writers treat the genre.
The main character of The Thief is a distanced Japanese pickpocket who wanders the streets of Tokyo slipping a skilled hand into pockets and bags and often as not giving away as much as he keeps. We don’t even know the man’s name until page fifty-three, and then it comes out almost as a slip—a very clever device on the writer’s part, a way of holding the reader at a distance from the book’s protagonist in exactly the same way he himself is isolated from the people around him. It is a crime novel, but it is equally a story about modern disconnection and isolation. Nishimura is a master pickpocket, best on his own, but still nursing a student’s attachment to his teacher, the wizard of pickpockets, Ishikawa. It is his nostalgic fondness for his old teacher that ultimately leads Nishimura down a dangerous path.
He agrees to take part in what at first seems a simple house robbery with the potential for a big score. The boss however is a man named Kizaki who is soon revealed as a sociopath most happy boasting about the extent of his power to control and hurt others. Nishimura is quickly caught in the tangles of a criminal elite who see his existence as a game of cat and mouse.
Away from Kizaki and his dark threats, Nishimura has defined his own actions by a moral code, though one with scant relation to the law. In a store one day he notices a young boy shoplifting under the guidance of his mother. Near to being caught, he warns the two and once outside speaks briefly with the mother. Some days later he sees the boy again, this time shoplifting on his own. He sympathizes with this young boy and tries to stop him from stealing, telling the boy that pickpockets and thieves grow up to be loners separated from society. The boy touches something in the professional, who almost reluctantly begins to teach him how to pickpocket and shoplift successfully. It is a compelling aspect to the pickpocket’s character that he tutors a child forced to steal for his mother. In his thoughts on the boy we learn much about the art of picking pockets from the narrator's interior monologues, and in his instructions to the young boy learning the craft.
With the crime boss Kizaki, the pickpocket is ultimately forced into a series of trials that are really no more than a test of his skills, with failure bringing the promise of death. In a situation beyond his control the question arises of whether true freedom is something only those with the most power enjoy. Nishimura finally fulfills the demands made upon him, but it is a result meaningless to the one who imposed those demands. The story ends without a clear resolution as to the pickpocket’s fate. He is told that none of it matters, that his life is meaningless and on the brink of a bloody end. Left to bleed out his last minutes in an out of the way Tokyo alley, Nishimura tosses a coin toward a passing pedestrian at the mouth of the alley. We are left to wonder if the coin toss alters his fate to bring help.
Nakamura’s writing is clipped and plain in the way we expect of noir. The cityscape of Tokyo is anything but bright, and is instead a bleak, dirty and dark place of rain and clouds, a cold urban setting in which people are nothing more than marks or ghosts, unconnected phantoms in modern exile. A place where everyone is anonymous, everything soiled, dank and for sale. Apart from Nishimura and the young boy, the characters are each and all types we normally cringe at and lower our eyes in passing.
A final thought: After reading ten or so pages of The Thief it puzzled me why the translators, or publisher decided to use ‘thief’ as a choice for the English title. The original Japanese title of Suri more aptly translates as ‘pickpocket’ and describes a large part of the story and the main character’s psychology. He is after all, a man on the outside of society who spends his days putting his hands into the coats and pockets of others—a disconnected invasion of intimate places.
‘…I stood behind him as he waited for the train. My heart was beating a little fast. I knew the position of all the security cameras on this platform. Since I only had a platform ticket, I had to finish the job before he boarded the train. Blocking the view of the people to my right with my back, I folded the paper as I switched it to my left hand. Then I lowered it slowly to create a shield and slipped my right index and middle fingers into his coat pocket. The fluorescent light glinted faintly off the button on his cuff, sliding at the edge of my vision. 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…Little by little I breathed out, conscious of my temperature rising even more. My fingers still held the tension of touching a forbidden object, the numbness of entering someone’s personal space.’