Saturday, April 7, 2012

A sad tale in any language...

The Thief
by Fuminori Nakamura

As much as I read, I read plenty of novels in translation. I neither seek them out nor avoid them. But as a not especially well-traveled American, I do always have a gnawing feeling that I’m lacking the cultural context to fully appreciate the tale I’m reading. And while that’s certainly no fault of the author’s, that was again the feeling I had while reading Fuminori Nakamura’s novella, The Thief.

It is about—you won’t be surprised to learn—a thief, specifically a pickpocket. Now, Japanese popular culture has disavowed me of any notion that theirs is a gentler, more upstanding society than my own. Much of what I’ve seen out of Japan is even harsher than what we Americans produce. Still, I have an idea that with the prominent role of honor in their society, that to be a thief in Japan is somehow… different than it is here. More of a break with the mainstream, but perhaps I’m overanalyzing.

What I can tell you is that the thief at the heart of this novel is a rather tragic character. Through the course of this brief tale, we get some inkling about how he came to his life of crime. Part of it was circumstance, but much of it was in his nature. For this man, to steal is almost a reflexive action, at times completely unconscious. A psychologist might have a few things to say, but I do know that psychology is not widely practiced in Japan. Regardless, he lives a very isolated life.

During the course of this story, two notable things occur: a woman and her child come into his life, and he comes to the attention of a bigger fish. Regarding the woman and the child—do not in any way assume you can guess the nature of those relationships based on that sentence. Regarding the bigger fish, he’s a scary man. He coerces this pickpocket into participating in some illegal activities. When asked why he was hired, the man responds, “Because you guys have no family. Because you’re all alone in the world and even if you died there wouldn’t have been a single person who cared.”

This is more of a character study than a true crime novel, and as such it succeeds very well. Nakamura does a great job of getting inside the thief’s head. The relationships this man does have are explored. And even career criminals have ethical codes, and this man is no exception. It’s an intriguing look at a man living on the edge of society. And while I note that it’s more about character, there are criminal plots that propel the story forward. Ultimately, the tale is short enough to be read in no time flat, which is probably for the best. This is not a world I wanted to linger in overly long. But it was an interesting place to visit, with no passport required.

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