In simpler times, in simpler tales, authors pitted heroes against villains, and there was no confusion about who wore the black hat and who the white. We no longer live in those simple times, and most of us have grown bored with those simple tales. We want, in the books we read, something that at least approaches the complexity of the lives we lead outside of those books.
One way authors have satisfied this desire is to give us protagonists who are neither heroes nor villains, characters who, because they defy such easy descriptions, demand from the reader a bit of work: the mystery to be solved is not who committed the crime, but who the protagonist is.
Fuminori Nakamura’s “The Thief” is a crime novel in this tradition, a tradition that may have begun with the greatest crime novel of all, Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” In both books it’s not who committed the crime that is the mystery, and it’s not — or not only — what will happen next that keeps us turning pages. Rather, it’s what the author will — through the medium of his characters — think next.
The protagonist of “The Thief,” a character we piece together from thoughts, memories, and actions, is a highly skilled Tokyo pickpocket, but — nothing is simple — he seems to follow his trade not out of an active desire for money, but rather at the behest of a compulsion. So obscure are the reasons for his actions, even to himself, that he sometimes finds things in his pockets he does not remember having stolen. Why, we wonder, does he do it?
We get pieces of the pickpocket’s past: memories of a woman he loved, of a father figure who taught him his trade. The woman, however, is dead; the father figure is missing and probably dead, too. With these departures the protagonist’s tenuous links to the rest of humanity seem to have snapped: he goes into Tokyo to steal, returns to his neighborhood to sleep, smoke, and drink canned coffee, and does so, almost always, alone.
The problem is that he is unable to cut himself off entirely. He sees a woman, “her damaged hair tied in a ponytail” — Nakamura has an eye for the telling detail — employing her son to shoplift food. Realizing they’ve been spotted, he warns her, and becomes, seemingly without volition, involved with the boy, showing for him real concern even as he tries, half-heartedly, to push him away. We see, here, the pickpocket’s humanity, a strand of his existence that is feeble but not dead.
Another encounter, with an arch-villain named Kizaki — Nakamura paints with a broader brush here — pushes the pickpocket in the direction of his demise. Kizaki forces him to take part in a scheme in which, as in a fairy tale, he must perform three impossible tasks — to steal, for example, two or three strands of a man’s hair pulled out by the root, “of course without him noticing.” Failure, Kizaki has promised, will mean death.
In the course of assigning him these tasks Kizaki launches into a long Dostoevskian monologue that calls into question free will. He tells the story of a servant whose entire life — every seemingly random encounter — is planned by the nobleman for whom he works. It is clear that Kizaki tells the story for a reason: he aims to control — has controlled — the pickpocket in the same way. The end of the novel leaves the question of whether Kizaki has been successful (and also the question of free will) open, an openness that satisfies in a way simple resolutions do not.