As an avid fantasy reader, the notion of fate is one in which I am well-versed. Fantasy novels often have a multitude of prophecies or destined heroes, and it always requires even more suspension of disbelief than already necessary to read speculative fiction. What I do not often encounter in any fiction, fantasy or otherwise, is manufactured destiny. If I had to define the dominant theme in Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, it would be the idea of one person controlling the fate of another.
The nameless protagonist of The Thief is a pickpocket whose skill in lifting wallets and other valuables borders on the mystical. Pickpocketing is just one of his bad habits, but it is the one that defines him and his most natural means of expression. Nakamura’s descriptions of this character’s thievery are incredibly detailed, to the point that one might suspect Nakamura of a shadowy past. Whether or not the descriptions are accurate to the profession is a question left to actual pickpockets, but Nakamura’s minutiae are good enough for someone looking in from the outside. The Thief has been stealing since childhood, and as it goes with many career criminals, his existence is a fragile one.
There comes a point in the novel where the Thief gets caught up with a man named Kizaki, a shadowy figure of power who has his own set of otherworldly talents. It is with Kizaki that we find our questions of fate and control, and the Thief finds himself in schemes and manipulations beyond his expectations or abilities.
And this is really what lies in the center of Nakamura’s dark novel. Is choice an illusion, a veil thrown over our eyes so that we can be driven to goals that benefit someone else? Many conspiracy theorists would claim that this is what happens in every society in the world, and likely has for all time. Those in power can steer the herd, or its individuals, in whatever manner they please. Those at the top have the means and the education to control who and what they need. In this, Kizaki is the power, and his knowledge of the Thief allows him complete dominion over the pickpocket’s life.
Nakamura also explores the value of human connection, and the ability to exploit those relationships. The Thief befriends a young boy who he catches shoplifting at a local grocer and saves him from being caught in the act. Largely unattached, it is not until the Thief shows affection to this child that Kizaki has a hold over him. It is the Thief’s desire to engage with other humans, something he has not done since the death of his former lover and disappearance of his best friend. Nakamura asks whether it is worthwhile to engage with those same vulnerabilities again, with stakes higher than they have ever been for the Thief.
I’ve not read Nakamura before, but I enjoyed The Thief. Nakamura’s writing is delicate and melancholy, and reminds me of falling rain and dark nights in Tokyo (never once while reading this did I envision a daytime setting, and Nakamura’s descriptions are brief enough to free one’s imagination). Like many contemporary Japanese authors, The Thief has a dark edge to it, but without the graphic violence common among his peers. I don’t believe that The Thief is a novel I will remember in detail. It has its moments, and its an easy enough read. I did have the thought that a pickpocketing video game would be incredibly satisfying, particularly if they nailed some of the systems of thievery that Nakamura describes, but that does not necessarily help this book stand out among the others. Nevertheless, I’ve already picked up another Nakamura novel, Evil and the Mask, which seems to have similar ideas about Fate and moral choice, and I always appreciate when authors delve into philosophy.