Fuminori Nakamura: The Thief – Suri (2009)


I’ve seen people call Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura’s novel The Thief crime or thriller but I don’t think that’s doing it any justice. What The Thief really is, is a Japanese noir. I think that’s important to know because there are big differences between these genres and frustrated expectations have a tendency to spoil books. Of course, expecting a traditional noir, in the vein of some US or European authors, could lead to a similar frustration.

The protagonist of this story is a talented thief. So talented in fact that he can steal wallets from inside pockets with zippers. At the beginning of the novel, he introduces us to his art and to his code of honour. He only steals from the rich and often gives to the poor. He’s just returned to Tokyo. Where he’s been and why he was gone, will only be explained later. Coming back proves to be a very bad idea as one of the reasons why he left was that he had to go into hiding after a robbery with a Yakuza gang. Those gangs are notorious for getting rid of people who helped them.

The thief is a loner. He had a lover and a friend but both are gone. He doesn’t have a family. When he meets a small kid whose mother uses him to steal things in shops, he takes pity on the boy and shows him some tricks. The kid who is as lonely as the thief, soon begins to follow him and wait in front of his apartment. The thief tries to shake him off but the kid keeps on returning and finally the thief decides to help him. The readers senses that the kid must remind the thief of his own childhood.

Unfortunately, our hero bumps into someone from his past who wants him to steal several things for him in exchange of his and the boy’s life.

Large parts of the story are told chronologically, but there are many flashbacks that tell us a lot about the thief’s past.

I called this a noir as the book contains a lot of typical noir themes. It explores loneliness, fate, and angst. The main protagonist is a loner with a pessimistic outlook on life. The similarities to other noir novels I’ve read stop there. What I missed most was the typical atmosphere of  traditional US/European noir. This book was so cold. Like a polished chrome surface. Never melancholy or moody. Unfortunately, those are some of the elements that make me love noir and their absence prevented me from loving this.

I’ve seen a few reviews in which people complained about the ambiguous ending. I didn’t mind it because I felt it worked.

What I liked a great deal was the way the theme of freedom was explored. Freedom of choice and action. I’m afraid to spoil the book, so I’ll only say there’s a sinister character in this story who likes to play with people tricking them into believing the choices they make are their own. The results are chilling.

The Thief was fascinating and readable and offers a unique look at Japanese gangs. I didn’t love it but I enjoyed it a lot.


32 thoughts on “Fuminori Nakamura: The Thief – Suri (2009)

  1. I love this book Caroline. I read it ages ago and it really resonated. The description of the way he goes about pickpocketing has me grasping my handbag extra tightly on the underground. It’s such a lonely book with a real sense of being an outsider.

    • I didn’t love it as much as you did but only because I expected it to be a bit different. But it’s one of those books that gets better when thinking back. And like you, it made me super careful on public transport. the way he describes his pickpocketing it’s an artform.

    • I’ve never come across a Japanese author I found so cold, so I’d say it’s probably specific to him. On the other hand, When it comes to crime they seem to keep readers at arms length.

    • Sorry. I picked the cover I liked the most. I should gave mentioned that I read the German translation. My cover is entirely different.
      It’s a compelling but and actually quite rich.

  2. I didn’t love it, either, but it certainly was compelling. And while I don’t remember it with enough detail to comment articulately, I do remember a terrible chill from the loneliness, the isolation, which is a theme I find in most of Nakamura’s novels.

  3. Sounds interesting, Caroline – one to keep in mind for the future. Loneliness and alienation seem to be common themes running through much of the Japanese literature I’ve read in recent years. It made me think of some of Yoko Ogawa’s work, especially her collection of interlinked short stories, Revenge.

  4. I think that I have said this before, but I really need to read some books coming out of japan.

    This sounds good. Though the “coldness” in a noir book might be disappointing in some ways, I think that such variations in style, even if cultural, are the root of creativity.

    • I’d really love to hear your thoughts on Japanese literature.
      In the end, once I got used to the coldness it was particularly interesting to compare to others types of noir. It certainly is a sign of his creativity.

  5. I love Ogawa’s work, she seems to be able to write across styles and always engaging, I haven’t read enough Japanese literature and interested in your discussion of ‘noir’ I don’t know that I am sufficiently aware to be able to identify if something is nor or not, is it indicative of a work that touches on those themes you mention?

    • She’s a very engaging writer. I agree. I’ll have to get back to her soon.
      In noir novels you almost always have a loner character against the rest of the world, so to speak. Mostly they are Private Detectives but they can be criminals as well. The atmosphere is often special. City descriptions are detailed. That’s missing here. It’s much more character focused.

    • It was very different. I thought the ending worked but clearly many people felt it didn’t. It probably depends on how close you read as the people who complained about the ending also felt it was surreal at times. It’s not surreal at all. Some of his childhood memories haunt him. That’s all.

  6. Thanks for this review! I wonder if you also read mine of The Thief that I wrote for the Japanese Literature Challenge 10 past July… Of course, we had different starting points because quite obviously I’m not familiar enough with the crime, thriller or noir to make comparisons, but in the end we both liked the book.

    LaGraziana @ Edith’s Miscellany

    • My pleasure. No, I hadn’t seen your review. I was busy reading and rwaviewing books but not many reviews. I’ll have a look. I suppose it’s not necessary to compare but I found it interesting.

      • Certainly, it’s not necessary to compare, but it’s interesting and gives your review a different perspective… one that I didn’t see before you mentioned the differences.

          • I don’t know. I only read The Thief, but I reckon that Nakamura’s “coldness” or maybe “aloofness” is his personal style. My writing isn’t particularly emotional either and may often feel detached too… like a leopard can’t change its spots I can’t change my writing ways. Probably it’s the same with Nakamura Fuminori.

              • Well, maybe I should return to calling myself a would-be writer since I didn’t get to writing fiction in five years now because so many (usually unpleasant and awfully annoying or distracting) things happened that kept me from it. But I’m confident that I’ll resume writing… and pretty soon as I hope since I really, really miss it. For the time being I stick to the stopgap – reviewing books on my blog in another than my writing language ;-).

                • I know what you mean. You need a certain equilibrium to write. At least as long as it’s not a full time profession and you’ve gained some momentum.
                  I hope you’ll get back too it soon.

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