The Thief (2009) by Fuminori Nakamura, newly translated into English, is crime noir with an existential twist, set on the streets of Tokyo. The narrator, whose real name is alluded to only once, goes nameless throughout the novel and is known primarily as `the thief'. A pick pocket, the thief is an artist of petty crime. He steals from the rich and the unpleasant to make a living. Well versed in the history and craft of his profession, the thief's life moulds effortlessly with his work: he is a loner without connection to the world and who can pass through a room, a crowded street, a city, unnoticed. So practiced is he that the thief steals by instinct, barely engaging his mind throughout his work, and so it runs onto to other thoughts: more profound and metaphysical issues. It is these streams of consciousness that the reader is made party too throughout as the thief goes about his routine. But, when he makes a rare emotional connection with a young boy, the thief leaves himself vulnerable and, after meeting an old friend, is pulled into dangerous circles, mixing with gangsters who will play with his life as though it is meaningless. They force the thief to perform a number of increasingly difficult thefts in order to save his life, but who is truly in control of the thief's destiny; himself, the gangsters, fate or something larger?
The thief is a loner, trapped in a solitary existence and burdened by his own sense of ennui. Living life on the margins of society, he leaves no mark on the world; he is a nameless, faceless apparition that silently haunts the chaos which surrounds him; he represents the marginalised Other. The grimy world of the novel is a harsh place where almost all the relationships are predatory and the world is indifferent to one's existence. The thief has only one real emotional attachment during the course of the narrative and it is this that the gangsters leverage to manipulate and control him - an interesting comment on the dangers and vulnerabilities of emotional connections in a life lived without them. Theft itself is used predominantly as a rumination on possession and ownership, and the morality of one's position to them.
There are numerous reflections on the role that fate plays in one's life and the novel becomes a meditation on a life lived outside of society, beyond the reach of conventional morality and social influences. The theme of fate is carried through right to the novel's ambiguous conclusion, the thief left in the uncertain land between life and death - where, after all, he has been from the novel's first page.
Nakamura's prose is elegant but stripped down to a stark minimalism. This works well with the protagonist's sense of ennui, but also strips the setting of any individuality; the thief could have been operating in any of the world's major cities, and this speaks to the universality of his condition. There is poetry in the prose too however, a mix of beauty with the indifferent that comes to represent the thief's own mentality. There was a certain jarring suddenness to many of the key events as the novel spiralled towards its conclusion, and this only added to the writing's potency and the sense of the thief's thin grasp on existence.
Some of the dialogue is very weak, with huge amounts of exposition and a very unnatural rhythm to many of the conversations - it's hard to say whether there is something lost in the translation or whether this is simply a stylistic trope, either of Nakamura's or of Japanese fiction in general, either way it reads badly to the Western ear.
Overall, there is a sense that the constituent elements of the novel are all slightly too thin to make this a wholly satisfying read; it lacks the punch of crime fiction, but neither does it have the depth of truly moving philosophy. It is a half-breed, but an intelligent, unusual, and well-considered piece of writing.