The Thief or Suri by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates (Soho Press, 2012), is a book describing the life of a pickpocket in Tokyo. Going back in Japanese history, the kinchakukiri of the late Togugawa period were such skillful pickpockets, they were seen as comparable to modern magicians and, when caught, were valuable enough to avoid punishment. They were usually forced into service as police spies. Today, there’s comparatively little property-related crime. Apart from the locks on the doors into the average home, there are no real security measures once inside. This reflects the fact that there’s often little to steal apart from loose cash. Burglary is usually the province of gangs that focus on the homes of the wealthy. The more successful pickpockets work in teams and target the obviously rich. A smaller number of more skillful thieves work independently, striking out on their own for freedom. There’s a pervasive fear that lives are meaningless. Japan has a traditional culture imposing tight social organisation on all aspects of life. Working for a gang traps members into a hierarchical organisation with strict rules. This is more stifling than life outside.
Nishimura, our thief as hero, has little real motivation to succeed in life. Although he derives pleasure and satisfaction from being able to steal more or less at will, he lives a relatively impoverished life without any interest in the material possessions the stolen money could buy. In fact, he returns the wallets and credit cards, keeping some of the money, giving the rest away. The satisfaction comes when touching other people’s property. It’s an act denying ownership. Fingers are trespassing into the clothing or bags of others as forbidden physical zones. He’s secretly rebelling against society’s value system. Passive, he floats through life without a rudder to steer him in a positive direction. Although he harks back to a previous sexual relationship, there’s no current female companion. This leaves him lonely and socially dysfunctional. For a while he teams with Ishikawa who’s equally skillful. Working together, they are unbeatable. They are not really friends, but there’s a bond between them. Occasionally Tachibana watches them, but he’s not allowed to work with them. Through Ishikawa our thief meets Kizaki. He’s a violent career criminal. Against his better judgement, he and the other two join the gang for a single home invasion. After it passes off successfully, Ishikawa “disappears” and our thief runs away from Tokyo.
When he returns, he helps a woman and her son in a rather disorganised way. In due course, he sleeps with the woman but it’s relatively meaningless except he sees something of himself in the boy and vaguely tries to prevent him from drifting into a life of crime. Then Kizaki finds him. Curious, he asks Kizaki why the three were recruited. He admits that, had the police become interested, he would have killed them and framed them as the burglars, summing up their lives in a few simple sentences, “Because you guys have no family. Because you’re all alone in the world and even if you’d died there wouldn’t have been a single person who cared. It would have taken the [police] ages to ID you.” Kizaki now tells our thief he will kill the woman and her son if he refuses to work for him. So fate comes into play. It would have been better if he’d stayed lonely. As it is, Kizaki proposes to act like the Fates of classical mythology and to direct the thief’s life. In a critique of Nishimura’s life, he says the main failure was only to embrace suffering. There had been no joy in the man’s life. It’s the blend that makes life interesting and offers positive incentives. So our thief is given three tasks with the promise of more to come. The negative incentive is that his success will save three lives. Like one of the kinchakukiri, he’s forced into service by a monster.
This is a fascinating read. Although it’s set in Japan, there’s a universality about the themes of alienation, anomie and nihilism. Although Japan is a more structured society than the majority of Western countries, we can understand individuals who feel they no longer relate to the values and needs of those around them or who think their lives are meaningless. Often, such people are violent. Others simply act as if everything they want to do is permitted. Whether the results are merely socially aberrant or, perhaps, sexually deviant, they reject the idea of conformity. Who’s to say what happens to Nishimura is not happening to career criminals in our own cities. Overall, The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura is an excellent, fast-paced thriller which says something interesting about the risks if people live outside the prevailing cultural norms.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.