The Thief is a short novel concerning Nishimura, a young Tokyo pickpocket. He is a classic noir protagonist: a man isolated from the world, Nishimura is also reliant upon it, and very much aware of the physicality of the people around him. This is a book full of packed commuter trains, stations, shops and public spaces; in order to be effective at his job, Nishimura has to get close to his targets, touching them, opening their coats with an invisible hand and, on occasion, unbalancing them in order to provide cover for his stealing. Nishimura is, in many senses, a ghost; and this contrast between the closeness he requires for his work and the distance at which he keeps other people is what makes him such an interesting character.
Nishimura is a man very aware of his hands, and of the weight and mass of the items he steals. There’s clearly also a compulsion to this behaviour, so much so that on more than one occasion, he finds in his pockets items he has no memory of taking. Similarly, following the death of a girlfriend, Nishimura feels compelled to go out onto the street, to steal ‘indiscriminately from rich and poor alike. Burying myself in the crowd, I took wallets and cell phones, even gum and receipts and handkerchiefs. Breathing raggedly, with tension and pleasure running through me, I took them all.‘
It is when Nishimura abandons this solitary existence and becomes involved (along with his mentor) in an armed robbery that his world starts to fall inwards. Nishimura encounters some very nasty people indeed, and is forced by them to use all his skills as a thief to save not only his own life, but also that of a woman and her child he has reluctantly befriended. Nakamura’s villains are also ghosts, lurking in the background and exerting influence at all levels of society. The robbery turns out to be nothing of the sort – rather, it is an ‘assassination disguised as a run-of-the-mill crime‘ – and a way of exerting control on a group of individuals who can see the death for what it really is.
Nishimura’s involvement in this plot sees him forced into a series of more specific thefts. These include stealing a mobile phone, which rings at the most inopportune moment during one particularly nerve-jangling scene. Faced also with the impossible task of stealing an envelope from a pocket which has been sewn shut, Nishimura displays remarkably ingenuity. But this does not prevent him from paying the price for his criminal past, and his final inability to remain totally isolated from the world around him.
Nakamura’s next novel Last Winter We Parted is due in translation in October. The book concerns a young journalist, commissioned to write about a famous murder case and to interview the man responsible, and is a story that chimes with ideas of my own in that direction. I’m also intrigued to see if Nakamura handles it with the same cool, cinematic prose that he brought to bear in The Thief, and which made it such an enjoyable read.