NoirCon | Report #2

NOIRCON-sqThe meaning of The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura is the protagonist’s understanding of the hierarchical nature of his corner of society.

One of my great discoveries (in the same way that Columbus “discovered” America, so you know I’m not seriously implying that Inakamura was first off the mark here) of NoirCon 2014 was the work of the Japanese novelist Fuminori Nakamura. He’s already well known in Japan, with nine novels to his credit (at the relatively tender age of 37), as well as a slew of prizes including the Shincho Prize for New Writers, the Noma Literary Prize for New Writers, the Akutagawa Prize, and the Oe Kenzaburo Prize.

I’ve only read one of Nakamura’s novels, The Thief, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. On the surface, it’s a crime novel about a Tokyo pickpocket who provides a sort of procedural for his trade while having very little to say about his own life or anyone else’s. We don’t even learn his name until about 50 pages in, and personal information remains spare throughout. This sense of removal from life gives The Thief a very existential feel, recalling the work of authors like Kafka and Camus, but also draws on the disconnected sensibility of the lead character in Robert Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket (played by Martin LaSalle). It’s also full of philosophical ruminations, and is written in a spare, efficient style in which nothing important is left out while nothing extraneous is included.

Nakamura was at NoirCon to receive the David Goodis Award for excellence in writing, and was interviewed on Saturday by Tom Nolan (with Sam Bett acting as translator). Nakamura told us that he was drawn to reading dark literature as a young person, and that he “found solace in the companionship” of writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Ellery Queen, and David Goodis. He also cited Patricia Highsmith and the 1960 film Purple Noon (Plein Soleil), adapted from her 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, as influences. But he also revealed that the Japanese literary tradition influenced him, citing a proverb that says you can hold something dear while also creating something new, and thus become part of the flow of culture that influenced you.

American culture is influential in Japan, according to Nakamura, and several younger writers are producing novels in the style of classic mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, including one who uses the pseudonym “Edogawa Ranpo,” which recalls the name of Edgar Allan Poe. However, the term “noir” in Japan is generally reserved for film, not fiction, and Nakamura didn’t think of his own works as noir until someone else pointed it out to him. In general, categories such as science fiction are also less used in Japan than they are in America, and instead people tend to think in terms of two broad categories of writing: entertainment and literature.

If you’ve read The Thief, you will recall the recurring imagery of a tower. The meaning, according to Nakamura, is the protagonist’s understanding of the hierarchical nature of his corner of society. He’s in the middle, with the crime boss above him and a young thief he’s tutoring below him, and they all have different degrees of agency, depending on their place in the hierarchy. That’s an example of how Nakamura works philosophical reflections into what seems to be a very bare bones story about one small player in the criminal underworld of Japan.

Most of Nakamura’s novels remain untranslated, but three are available in English from Soho Press: The Thief, Evil and the Mask, and Last Winter We Parted. | Sarah Boslaugh

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