As a person who had been to Japan multiple times, the first thing that fascinated me about this novel is the fact that pickpockets exist in Japan. Even in the most crowded of the trains I have never bothered to check if my purse is in the pocket. So confident was I about the safety factor in Japan and nothing has happened till now to change my opinion. Hence it was with bit of surprise that I read about the pickpocket protagonist of Fuminori Nakamura’s novel ‘The Thief’
Nishimura returns to Tokyo from wherever he has been hiding and starts again with what he knows best, pickpocket. Nishimura himself is confused as to why he is back in Tokyo. Is it because he wants to continue his trade or is it because he wants to find out what happened to his one time mentor and friend? He wants to knows what exactly happened in the past but the past catches up with him in ways that he hasn’t dreamt of and that has dire consequence for Nishimura.
The novel also deals with another criminal aspect present in many countries: the unknown mafia probably working for political bigwigs. The most chilling and moving moments in the novel as about how these small time crooks are used by the mafia for their ends.
A very human side story is developed by the author about a sex worker trying to turn her kid into a pickpocket. Nakamura observes the boy trying to steal things and ensures he escapes. Then a strange bond develops between the boy and Nakamura leading to Nakamura focusing his energies to ensure that the boy does not turn out to be like him.
Nakamura’s writing is taut and he keeps the suspense intact throughout. Details about how a person’s pocket is picked are told in a fascinating manner. It is almost like Nakamura is writing a pickpocket manual. He tells us about how the pockets are picked when the thief works solo, how it is picked when they work in pairs, how things are lifted from supermarket with the cameras or the store detectives noticing and much more.
The best writing though is reserved for describing the head of the mafia, the way they plan and execute a job. The murky and the shadowy world is perfectly invoked and there is a sense of unreality in those chapters. The dialog between the mafia boss and Nishimura is a superb way of telling how minor criminals are controlled by major ones.
While everything that happens is told in an interesting manner by Nakamura, lack of any major twist is probably the only letdown as far as this novel is concerned. While the ending kept ambiguous enough for us to derive our own conclusion, the lack of resolution does make it feel incomplete. The novel has many things going for it: it is atmospheric, the story is grippingly told, there are some very moving incidents but due to this lack of surprise, (which is probably one of the key requirements for a crime novel) according to me, is what gives the feeling that the novel does not realize its full potential.