by Fuminori Nakamura
Soho Press (2013)
originally published in Japan (2009)
The art of pickpocketing, getting past the whole theft thing, is not unlike magic. Sleight of hand, distraction, all play their part. In fact, it kind of feels like magic when described by Nakamura in The Thief, as the unnamed protagonist is so skilled in his trade that he can perform it seemingly at will under the most trying circumstances--even stealing items without any conscious effort, occasionally finding pilfered items in his pockets that he has no memory of stealing. He is a sad, directionless character who seems all too aware of the life he leads, yet given opportunity after opportunity to save himself, he resigns himself to an anonymous life of crime.
He may target the rich, scoping them out in the crowded streets of Tokyo the way a hawk finds mice in a hayfield, but the thief is no Robin Hood. He has a mentor of sorts, but it's an odd relationship that ultimately threatens his life when the older thief brings him in on a break-and-enter job orchestrated by an ominous gangster that already seems to know a lot about the thief. When the job is done and his money is made, his mentor goes missing, and their target winds up dead. The thief smelled trouble before he even signed on for the job, and now he is sure that the criminals he worked for have their sights set on him.
While the thief carries on an almost cavalier attitude towards his own well-being, he finds himself taking an interest in the livelihood of a young boy. The boy and his mother are shoplifters the thief notices in a market pocketing food and drink. Whether it's pity or some familial connection to a thief in training, the thief becomes a pseudo-mentor for the kid, giving him money so he doesn't have to steal risky items for his neglectful mother, and teaching him the methods he learned over the years. It is a relationship at once odd and endearing. The thief has no one in his life, and it may be some kind of redemptive mission on his part to either school the boy in pickpocketing or get him out of the game entirely.
Nakamura won a literary award for this short novel, and the great translation into English by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates makes it easy to see why. There is a leanness to the prose, sharp and quick as the nimble hands that might pluck your wallet without your knowing. Parts of the story feel like they meander a little, but all of it leads in one inevitable direction, and the story becomes difficult to put down with each page read. I'm unsure how many of Nakamura's novels have been translated to English, but if they're as good as this one, then I will have to put a search on for them.