After a brief stop in the French countryside, it’s time to take to the skies again, as our next Man Booker International Prize longlist journey is a long-haul trip. Today we find ourselves in Taiwan, where a writer is poring over family and national history in an attempt to solve some mysteries from the past. We’ll follow him around as he hunts for clues, but to do so we’ll need some transportation of our own. Time to get peddling…
The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
– Text Publishing, translated by Darryl Sterk
What’s it all about?
Set in Taiwan, Wu’s novel follows a middle-aged writer on a quest to track down a very special bicycle. Twenty years earlier, the protagonist’s father disappeared, and with his mother suddenly falling ill, he feels the need to find out what happened, with the bicycle his only clue. With friends in the Taiwanese bicycle-collecting community pointing him in the right direction, he soon locates the bicycle in question and meets a number of people who have owned, or ridden, the bike. Each encounter brings him closer to the truth, but also provides him with insights into the island’s turbulent past.
The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating work, and a pleasure to read. The novel is made up of two main strands, namely the conversations the writer has with the people who have had contact with the bicycle and a series of short sections entitled ‘Bike Notes’, in which Wu goes off on slight tangents from the main story to provide information about the development of the bicycle industry in Taiwan. That may not sound like a great way to construct a work of fiction, but the writer’s conversational style prevents it from becoming an obstacle to the plot.
The first chapters consist of the writer’s early memories, many of which revolve around his father and his many bicycles, and when our friend finally tracks down the Lucky bike in question, it’s as if he’s being transported back to his childhood:
As I rode, I tried to sense if, or how, the personality of the bike had changed in twenty years. In my brief contact with it, I noticed almost straightaway that the rims, the tyres, the rack, some of the brake parts, the pedals, the saddle and the handlebars had been replaced, and that there might be other differences I could not immediately see. But it was indeed my father’s Lucky bicycle, though refurbished, modified and reassembled. In twenty years, where might his bicycle have travelled? What places had it been to? Who had looked after it, replaced its parts? And why?
pp.52/3 (Text Publishing, 2017)
Hoping to find out more about how the bicycle has made it back into his life, he talks to previous owners. However, while he’s unable to find out too much about his father, each person he speaks to has a wonderful story to tell.
One of his first conversations is with Abbas, a photographer who gradually opens up and talks of his meetings with old Tsou (a man with his own Lucky bicycle and a rather unusual bird). Later, Abbas even allows the writer to listen to recordings made by his father, Pasuya, recounting his exploits with the Japanese army in south-east Asia. Here we learn of the feats of the renowned Silverwheel Squad on their Lucky bicycles, and of the elephants they used when the jungle got too thick for the bikes to be of use.
However, Abbas isn’t the only person the writer meets on his quest. Emails to Abbas’ ex-girlfriend are answered not by simple responses but in the form of lengthy tales from another person entirely, a woman recounting stories about a butterfly artist (which is just as intriguing/upsetting as it sounds). Later, a visit to the zoo brings him face to face with Shizuko, an elderly woman with a connection to another old soldier. Gradually, the threads come together, and the writer learns all about the history of the two bikes – and what might have happened to his father.
Part of the interest of The Stolen Bicycle lies in the history lesson it provides, even if Wu steers carefully around any touchy Chinese issues. Instead, there’s a focus on the Japanese era and the war years, with the second half of the novel taking the reader to Burma, Malaya and down to Singapore, providing a slightly different slant on the traditional European-focused WW2 book. In addition, the writer manages to blend Taiwanese culture into his narrative in the form of the traditional languages the older characters speak and the butterfly pictures imitating famous works of art.
This historical focus contributes to the sense of nostalgia pervading the book as it provides glimpses of a past the writer only knows from stories. The march of time is evident throughout the story, with particular emphasis on the rusty bikes found on the island and the ageing people who look for them. The protagonist becomes swept up in the world of the second-hand dealers in his desire to explore the past. It’s an attempt to bring back the days of his youth, but throughout the story he’s the first to acknowledge the unmistakable marks of time on his own life (and face).
The Stolen Bicycle isn’t always as straight a story as it might appear, though, and while not everyone agrees, there’s more than a hint of Murakami influences and magical-realism touches. Whether it’s the unpretentious first-person narrator, the war flashbacks (including the zoo stories), the interest in old music or the old café where he hangs out, I saw the Japanese writer’s fingerprints all over the place (there’s even, technically, a – very big – cat!). As for the slightly bizarre elements, there are a good few of those, with dreams coming to play a large role in the story, but the strangest scene comes when Old Man Tsou and Abbas go diving in the flooded basement of an abandoned building:
It was a school of fish, staggeringly numerous. The fish were big, as big as humans, and their fins and tails swished back and forth, creating clouds of bubbles. (So they were the ones who made the bubbles, he thought.) It was when Abbas saw that they were not fish but people that he did a double take. (p.89)
When you hear that they were only there on the advice of a bird housing the spirit of a Japanese soldier…
It’s all beautifully put together, with a host of fascinating stories told at an unhurried pace. The writer is always willing to make multiple visits to his new friends, allowing the characters to tell their stories at their leisure, and the reader soon falls into this mood. The novel is physically beautiful, too, with its ink-painting cover (containing intertwined elements from the story) and sketches of bikes, along with the calligraphy and faded colours of the Bike Notes sections. While the number of characters and timelines can make the story a little tricky to follow at times, there are some rather poignant passages (elephants never forget…) and it all comes together wonderfully in the end when the writer finally realises how the various strands connect.
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
This is another that will probably be close to my top six. It’s a wonderful book to read, and I recommend it without hesitation, yet I do wonder whether this will really stay with me for more than a few days. The novel provides an intriguing glimpse into Taiwanese history and culture for those (like myself) who haven’t previously encountered it, but I’m not sure it quite does enough to make it a true contender for this year’s prize.
Will it make the shortlist?
Most probably. I’m almost playing devil’s advocate in my views above as virtually every other review I’ve seen has been overwhelmingly positive, and I can see this getting a lot of support from the official judges. If, as some of us suspect, there’s a reluctance to heap more praise and prizes on the Han Kang/Deborah Smith combo, The Stolen Bicycle, as the only other Asian book on the longlist, is well positioned to make the shortlist – and after that, who knows?
As much fun as it’s been to get back on a bike, we need to return to the airport so that we can continue on our journey. The next stop is Paris, where we’ll be cruising the streets in the company of a charming man with a rather dubious past. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? All in a day’s work for our new acquaintance – as you’ll find out next time 😉