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Review of The Thief

Updated on October 22, 2020
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Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Nakamura Fuminori signing books at the 2013 Los Angeles Festival of Books.
Nakamura Fuminori signing books at the 2013 Los Angeles Festival of Books. | Source

A skilled pickpocket returns to Tokyo, plying his trade by stealing from the wealthy. It isn’t long before he runs into some old criminal associates who bring up the hand he played in a home robbery gone wrong. Threatened by a psychotic crime boss, the narrative thief is forced into a situation where he must pull off three impossible pick pocketing tasks or find himself and the few people he care for killed by thugs from Tokyo’s underworld.

Other People’s Money

Among the strong elements of Nakamura’s novel is the spare quality of the prose. There is a deceptive simplicity to the observations the narrator makes, which has two effects. First, it makes the novel easy to read. Much like The Stranger by Camus or The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard, there is nothing particularly tricky or distracting about the prose. The narrator is straightforward in his view of the world. In fact, what gets described in the most detail are his actions as a pick pocket and the few occasions where he talks about his craft with a boy who follows him. This narrative style makes the reader do more work, examining what is in the text to explain why the narrator and other characters make the choices they do. Secondly, because the prose is minimal it keeps the story moving forward even at times when there isn’t a lot of plot to be had. The speed and ease with which the chapters fly by prevent a reader from feeling like time is being wasted even when there doesn’t appear to be much happening for certain stretches. Nakamura rarely becomes lyrical with his prose, so the symbols and narrative styling that do occur stand out that much more, drawing the reader to notice and question them.

I Ching hexagram 55: ䷶ “Abounding”
I Ching hexagram 55: ䷶ “Abounding” | Source

Thunder over Fire: Abundance

There are two predominant themes in The Thief. The first is the question of preordination. The narrator and the antagonist, Kizaki, both speak at different times about whether or not their actions are fated, but they speak about it in different ways. For instance, when the narrator sees a child trying to steal in a grocery store, he ultimately intercedes on the boy's behalf because he imagines a scenario where they boy is caught, humiliated for being “that kind of kid” and has his whole life of poverty, crime, and punishment plotted out for him by that one action (86). In taking steps to help, the narrator betrays a sincere affection people in those circumstances even though he refuses to acknowledge it. Even when talking about his line of work, the narrator admits there is little hope for a good life when he says, “People like that [thieves] generally come to a bad end” (98). Kizaki, for his part, tells a story about an ancient French aristocrat who engineered the life of a peasant down to every detail because he could (134-9). He seems obsessed with the story and the idea that it is possible to mastermind the details of other people’s lives. His dealings with the narrator and the impossible tasks he sets to him bear out this preoccupation with trying to control another person’s life. As he says about the story, “Was the young man’s fate really controlled by the nobleman? Or was being controlled by the nobleman the young man’s fate?” (140). From a certain perspective, Kizaki’s criminal actions and life of ruthlessness all seem to be an attempt to recreate the possibility of testing who can manipulate the fate of another. This is the theme a reader should have in mind when approaching the end of the novel and judging the actions the characters take in the course of it.

The second theme deals with what it means to be isolated. Kizaki berates the narrator for having personal attachments, claiming it makes people weak (133). This admonishment may seem strange to many readers because the narrator seems so cut off from everyone and recognizes it (174). He does have some attachment to the boy who follows him, but otherwise his behavior is perfunctory at best. The few people he may call friend are dead or gone, the one woman who seemed to have a hold on him, Saeko, is also dead, and the narrator does not seem to have much hope for the future. Similarly, the reader is confronted by recurring images of disappearing such as Saeko disappearing through her suicide and the narrator wanting to disappear too, his thought about dissolving into sparks, and even the last image of the novel with its “hoping for some kind of deviation” (112, 210, 211). That the novel is set in Tokyo—one of the most densely populated and affluent cities on the plant—is meant to evoke the contrast with the crushing loneliness felt by so many of the characters from the narrator, to the boy who feels abandoned, to Saeko who feels nothing, and even to Kizaki who wants an intimate control over someone else’s life. In many ways it evokes one of the hexagrams from I Ching. The commentary on “Abundance” states, “Loneliness can exist in the midst of great splendor” (181). That interpretation seems to hang in the background of the whole novel.

Shinjuku Station. Morning commuters hoping to board a train that's already full
Shinjuku Station. Morning commuters hoping to board a train that's already full | Source

Leaving Shinjuku Station

The Thief is a focused and spare price of contemporary crime fiction. Even readers unfamiliar with Japanese Literature should have little difficulty with this novel. For all its easy language and plot, however, the novel has a thematic depth that entices the audience to go deeper into the setting and characters. Nakamura’s work borrows from noir traditions to build a lean, contemporary crime novel of existential yearning.


I Ching. Kerson and Rosemary Huang (trans). New York: Workman Publishing, 1985.

Nakamura, Fuminori. The Thief. Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates (trans). New York: Soho, 2012.

© 2015 Seth Tomko


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