The Thief is a 16 chapter novel of the tightest prose imaginable, where not a single word is wasted, with the first chapter the shortest and the last the longest, a book you will finish in a day if you have it to spare.
It doesn’t appear on the most sought after or borrowed list of any library, you are unlikely to find it in a book shop, the author Fuminori Nakamura will not ring a bell, but The Thief should become essential reading for anyone with a discernible interest in the craft of writing.
What little we know of Nakamura is that his first novel, A Gun, was written two years after he left college and it won a bag load of awards. His precocity was no flash in the pan, and he won one of Japan’s most important literary awards, the Akutagawa prize, for his follow up three years later, The Boy in the Earth.
Long before The Thief was translated into English by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, it ran away with Japan’s equivalent of the Booker prize, the Oe. Between 2002 and 209, Fuminori Nakamura’s first three books have been critically acclaimed in Japan and laden with garlands of one hue or another.
The eponymous thief is the Artful Dodger of the criminal underbelly of Tokyo, at times a child in a man’s body, a compulsive pickpocket swamped by existential gloom: he has little need for his rich pickings.
Nakamura’s skill is in his development of the layered architecture of the thief’s displacement as a parasite in a squalid society. You could argue that it is a novel without emotional depth for, with the exception of a young boy the thief semi-adopts, the son of a prostitute whose boyfriends beats him, it is a book populated by shadows.
The temperature only rises whenever Nakamura uses sex to add to the psychological profile of the thief or his nemesis, a ruthless Yakusa boss, who guides him through a Dantesque parody of an orgy. Superbly written, however.
Characters are purposefully one dimensional – heartless gangsters not dissimilar to a manga portrait – but the story is never less than intriguing, especially when our protagonist is drawn into a web not of his own making. The story tails of as coldly as it began.
The Thief has the mood of a sorrowful winter grisaille, and while there is nothing to admire among the cast, the same cannot be said of the writing, as taut and parsed as Hemingway or Chandler.