Friday, February 24, 2012

Fuminori Nakamura, THE THIEF: Dark, Powerful, Japanese

Reading the local newspaper made me sad this week: people hurting other people in so many ways. There are heroic stories, too -- our community comes together in powerful ways when families and small children are injured, whether by fire, car accident, or birth -- and I usually notice those and let the other stuff slide by. But sometimes the reality is: Those dark, "noir" works of crime fiction are telling some of the truths of our time. And they're not pretty.

Fuminori Nakamura is one of Japan's most honored young writers. He turns 35 this year and has racked up a number of awards, including the Oe Prize, Japan's largest literary award. Named for, and selected by, Kenzaburo Oe -- whose books often embrace the life of the handicapped with deep emotion -- the prize went to Nakamura for THE THIEF. And now, thanks to a translation by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, the book is arriving in the US, scheduled for release by Soho Crime on March 20.

I didn't always like it, but I couldn't put the book down. Brutal at times, always gritty, it's narrated by "The Thief" himself -- a professional pickpocket, not only an artist of his trade but schooled in an alternate reality by his original mentor, Ishikawa, who told him, "If you steal a hundred thousand from someone who's worth a billion, it's almost like you've taken nothing." The apprentice thief had countered with, "But it's still wrong," and his mentor agreed but responded, "As long as there is one starving child in the world, all property is theft."

It's not an excuse, but it's a way to stand up against others who feel they're "saints" compared to the pickpockets. And they, in turn, are among the gentlest in the world of crime, especially organized crime. The Thief, it turns out, has failed to protect himself against such violent and abusive enemies. And since he is human enough to care about some of the people he meets, especially a boy who clings to him, the most criminal planners have a lever to use against him, forcing him to use his skills in deadly ways.

Crime, crime fiction -- the inner and outer life of a pickpocket must fit within such a description. Yet this is also written as "post-modern" Japanese literature, with the choppy language, moody imagery, and painful consequences that readers may have already experienced in, say, The Devotion of Suspect X. So fix a cup of (green) tea, dim the lights, let the room grow quiet, and walk into the book with The Thief and his allies and enemies. It's unforgettable. And it's a part of today's Japan that's worth getting to know.
The guy in the suit went on sleeping, and the bartender hadn't moved a muscle. If I could, I planned to watch them until I fell asleep myself. (Nakamura, THE THIEF)

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