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by Fuminori Nakamura with Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, trans.
Soho, March 2012
304 pages
ISBN: 1616950218

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The narrator of Nakamura's spare noir thriller is an accomplished pickpocket who works Tokyo's streets, targeting wealthy men whose pockets, after all, are worth picking. He dresses in a style that will allow him to fade into the background and he has developed a dexterity that would put a stage illusionist to shame. He's been honing his craft from an early age, since his schooldays when he first boosted snacks from the corner store and discovered that the act gave him a momentary illusion of an escape from the inexorable progress of time. But now time or fate seem to be reaching out to pull him back into a current of inevitability from which he hardly struggles to escape.

He seems to be a man from nowhere, with no family, no attachments. Yet attachment seeks him out, in the person of a small boy whom he saves from being caught shoplifting in a supermarket. Despite his every effort to discourage him, the boy continues to seek him out, parking himself on the doorstep, following him in the street, wanting to learn his craft perhaps, or merely to have his protection.

But it is an old acquaintance who really sets the hook. Unlike the narrator, Ishiwaka appears to ground his criminal activities in some form of anarchist "all property is theft" justification and claims to have given the proceeds of one spectacular theft to an aid group in Africa. A pointless gesture, he concedes, since there are thousands in those countries who die immediately after they are born. At the moment, there is a warrant out for his arrest on a charge of investment fraud.

It is Ishiwaka who leads the narrator into the grasp of a master criminal, the centre of an elaborate plot whose success depends on the existence of people like the narrator, men without family or history, utterly disposable. But the thief is not simply passive in the fate that overtakes him. He is curious as well, motivated as he says by a desire to find out what happens to men who live as he does.

If the intellectual underpinnings of this novel may strike some readers as a bit reminiscent of late night philosophy graduate students fuelled by an overdose of Dostoevsky and too much red wine, THE THIEF is nevertheless a compelling read. Admirable in its disciplined spareness, its unrelenting focus on the inevitable, its representation of the pickpocket as artist, it is yet a further demonstration of the degree to which contemporary Japanese authors are establishing a lock on the noir sensibility. Admirable too is the translation by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates. Readers who (with some justification) shy away from translated crime fiction need have no fear. Translated into a contemporary and idiomatic English which is nevertheless neither specifically American nor British, this is a thoroughly absorbing and stylish narrative.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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