I have known for quite a while that there’s a strong current of “noir” narratives in contemporary Japanese literature (see a list on Goodreads). I thought of checking out this genre with the work of Fuminori Nakamura, seven of whose books are published in English by Soho Press (@soho_press) of New York (they specialise in award-winning international crime fiction). The novels in the catalogue are: The Thief, Evil and the Mask, The Gun, Last Winter We Parted, The Kingdom, The Boy in the Earth and Cult X. Nakamura was born in 1977 and graduated from Fukushima University in 2000. He has won several prestigious literary prizes in Japan and lives in Tokyo with his wife. He rose to prominence internationally when he was awarded the 2010 Kenzaburō Ōe Prize for The Thief, which was published in Japanese in 2009.
The Thief is a short book. Tight in structure, economical in words. Unsentimental, bleak, and thick in its philosophical dimension. It is brilliantly atmospheric—made up of dim alleys, subway trains, underground passages, railway lines, graffiti, rotting lunch containers, black plastic bags with mysterious contents (“having the unpleasant elasticity of dark meat”), dens of hellish decadence, and crowds. Loads and loads of them, wherein the thief loses himself now and then. He is anonymous but well-dressed. So consummate are his pick-pocketing skills he doesn’t even remember which wallet was snatched from whom, and when, by him.
The thief is without family and friends (the ones he cared about didn’t live very long, it is mentioned at one point). He has had a few associates, and something of a lover—a married woman called Saeko—whom he lost too suddenly. The tale turns when Ishikawa, an old colleague, appears again, offering the thief an easy job—tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of the safe. The man turns out to be politician, and he is killed soon after the robbery—an event following which the thief finds himself entering a darker and darker realm of crime where even the successful completion of an assigned task is no guarantee of one’s success and safety. The mood of the novel gets more suspenseful and urgent and reflective, and questions are raised on fate and unfairness, on starving children of the world who die like flies.
The pickpocket, alone and uncertain, is made to dwell upon his past. What made him choose this sort of life? He remembers how as a young boy living in dirty lanes he had been enchanted by a certain tower in the distance—solemn, beautiful, exotic. And how, in his moment of humiliation that tower had continued to stand, marvelous and remote and utterly unresponsive, neither accepting nor rejecting him. This is the episode that prompted him to sink lower, retreat into the shadows, deny all values, trample all ties (in a kind of defiance). He decided to steal and steal until he could no longer see the tower. He persisted, it vanished…
In a final life-and-death situation that tower is far off, standing tall, hazy but still present. What did it mean? I felt it was a symbol of all that is good and fine and exists independently of our being. That is, every great thing of the world that will unapologetically go on even if/when we deteriorate and die. Every marvelous and mighty and important aspect/part of the universe that seems to ridicule us for our insignificance and frailty and transience. Funnily enough, it is this very stuff that can make us hold on, give us an ounce of ambition. As the thief lies in the end, hovering between hope and despair, fixing his eyes on the structure, he is mocked, for sure, but so also is he motivated to take one last chance…
A few memorable lines:
“But obviously if there’d be no concept of ownership there’d be no concept of stealing, would there? As long as there’s one starving child in the world, all property is theft.”
“My growing body demanded a lot of food and I didn’t see how there could be anything wrong with taking and eating it. Other people’s rules were just something they’d invented for themselves.”
“Things that are trivial to the people at the top of the pyramid are matters of life and death to those beneath them.”
“Reaching out my hands to steal, I had turned my back on everything, rejected community, rejected wholesomeness and light. I had built a wall around myself and lived by sneaking into the gaps in the darkness of life. Despite that, however, for some reason I felt that I wanted to be here for a little while longer.”
Read an interview with Fuminori Nakamura from 2014 on the magazine The Big Thrill.