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A review of The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura. Translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates. Audio book read by Charlie Thurston

The Thief is that rare combination of being thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining. It chock full of compelling, memorable characters, a storyline that pulls you in and keeps you in during entire literary ride and the landscape of the story, contemporary, seedy Japan, is brilliant. There are times I can almost sense the infamous pushers cramming people into the trains. As with any translation where one cannot read the source, it’s difficult to say how well written it is. However, this translation is written exceptionally well with crisp, spare dialog and evocative descriptions. I can only conclude that Messrs. Izumo and Coates must have done a masterful job based a great source. Despite the tragic nature of the world which our characters inhabit as well as their own tragic nature, this is an exceptional novel with a very different look at life that provides a flat-out great story. I highly recommend it.

For those who love audiobooks, I also commend the narration of Charlie Thurston. While he’s not Japanese, he seems to be move (or at least speak) comfortably in a Japanese setting. It was a delight to be able to use Whispersync (about which more here, if interested) to jump between my Kindle version and the Audible recording without back tracking or losing my spot.

Nakamura’s protagonist is technically adroit at his profession as a pickpocket, but fatally flawed in his life. Perhaps this is a commentary on contemporary high-tech life. We are becoming more precise and effective in our technical pursuits whilst becoming more isolated and purposeless in our lives. The Thief, Nishimura,  is not satisfied with the results of his choices. Of course, one never starts out looking for a life of crime. Nor does it just happen. It is the result of many choice points over one’s life. In Nishimura’s case, he started out with a technical and “gamers” interest in thieving; seeing his mentor, Ishikawa,  in action and wanting to emulate then excel past him in his own game. Both saw their thieving as a bit of an art form; moral considerations did not play a role. Over time, however, he becomes aware that his social estrangement and growing lack of direction are some of the unintended consequences of the life of a thief. He also falls into far deeper waters than he intended. The book begins with this growing self-awareness and the desire for more meaning and solid relationship.


***Light spoilers***

Nishimura is not without morals despite the life he has chosen. There is a pedophile on one of the trains that he deals with while protecting the girl. He befriends a boy and helps his mom. He even seems to be hiding out from his past criminal world as well as the “normal” world as the story opens. It is almost as if he is between worlds, but continuing the activities of his current world while he decides. He is pulled back into the now and making many far reaching decisions when he is followed and contacted by a former criminal acquaintance, Tachibana.

Enter Mr. Kizaki; Ishikawa has a vague relationship with him that becomes crystal clear. He is to pull one last job paying what was touted as a nice severance package. The trick, of course, was that he really couldn’t say no and he had to include Nishimura. Kizaki sees himself as playing a game as well, but on a much larger scale and with people’s lives. He sees himself as the great philosophical director of the fates of others ala Merovingian of The Matrix Reloaded fame. Whether it’s “jobs” or information, it’s all about power.

So there is Ishikawa and Nishimura on the one side – desiring relationship but not power and Kizaki on the other side, manipulating relationships of others and accumlating power and desiring more. In the midst of this are remembrances of former lover, Saeko and a burgeoning protective relationship with a boy. The relationship is surely flawed and Nishimura’s father-figure counsel is limited; e.g., he tells the boy not to follow in his footsteps because he’ll be a social outcast, not because it’s wrong.

But the fated cycle must continue and Nishimura is given a series of assignments he too cannot turn down.

***Spoilers – Don’t read until you’ve read the book***

So we see this intimate tragedy – two men are broken in similar ways by one play out epic themes of choice, fate and desire. They are powerless while Kizaki is powerful. Woven throughout the book is a dark tower whose ominous shadow forebodes a dark end for our Thief. He completed his difficult missions, yet the capricious Kizaki has him killed anyway. As his assailants walk away leaving him to die in an alley; Nishimura thinks:

“Surely my life hadn’t been so pointless I deserved a death like this. With all my strength I squeezed the coin in my fingers. Far off, standing tall, was the hazy tower”

Actually it can and, seemingly does. He dies for the entertainment of a pseudo-philosopher. Kizaki claims it is fate; that it is a story where he plays god and all of the players do his bidding whether they know it or not.

The thief’s final thoughts: “When I spied the figure of a person I hurled the coin, grimacing with pain. The bloody disc blotted out the sun’s rays, glistening darkly in the air, as though hoping for some kind of deviation.” No, this isn’t hollywood and he will have no final revenge.

While our protagonist was not a classic hero, he took other people’s money and did little to contribute to the world in which he lived, he seems a saint next to Kizaki. Yet here we are, at the end of the day, with Kizaki winning.

Fuminori Nakamura

Pretty depressing ending to a world and life which had plenty of misery of its own without such a death. This leads me to a risky cultural observation. I no longer remember how I stumbled on to Mr. Nakamura’s The Thief. I do remember when starting to read it with my parochial blinders that I presumed it was written by an American of Japanese descent. It became very clear, early on, this was not the case. What made this so apparent? It’s not just that he captures the heart of much of Japanese daily life. It is that, while deminished, American optimism plays a role in even the most depressing of American novels. Among modern authors, it seems that there is no better sense of tradgedy than that written by the Japanese; the Greeks have nothing on them. While I don’t love Pollyanna and Disney endings can seem a bit trite, I like the good guys (or the nearest approximation thereof) to win and the women and children to be safe. Yet Mr. Nakamura’s writing, even in translation, is so compelling I will be reading his work for some time to come, despite my natural inclination. Evil and the Mask, here I come; be gentle.

A final observation: it appears that Mr. Nakamura communicates a world in which there is little hope, depravity rules and the best you can hope for is to be a little bit more clever and have better luck than the norm. This is the same view provided by the Preacher in Ecclesiates 1:8-10 ESV that follows from believing that this world is all there is:

All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.

This is a worldview without hope in God through Jesus. It is without moral compass and direction. It is berefit of meaningful, trusting relationship. It appears that capricious fate rules our lives. Yet with Christ, all things are possible, even to know love, meaning and purpose. A world in which hope does not disappoint. It is a world in which duty and happiness are mingled into the joyful obligation of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. While I appreciate the art of Mr. Nakamura, I appreciate all the more the hope that is in Christ. Like Nishimura, our technical acumen cannot save us, but we are not left to our own devices.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails… 1 Corithinans 13:7-8a ESV
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 1 John 4:7 ESV
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 1 John 4:16 ESV