The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi tr. Darryl Sterk

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-yi, is one of the long listed titles for the Man Booker International 2018.

He is one of Taiwan’s most well-known authors and this is his fifth novel, the second to be translated into English. It won rave reviews in Taiwan, and the Taiwan Literary Award, following its Chinese-language release in 2016.

The narrator is the second son of a family, who desperately wanted a boy and finally had one after 5 girls. When the first son was born, the father decided there were too many girls, and almost adopted one out to a family member, events that lead up to the theft of his first bicycle.

With an extra mouth to feed, the family could barely scrape a living, and my father, who now had the son he’d always wanted, decided that five girls in the house was one too many, one more than had been allotted by fate.

However, it was a later Taiwanese ‘Lucky’ branded bike that would send the narrator off on a mission to follow all leads and meet all kinds of people, discovering many aspects of his culture and some of its history in trying track it down, the bike that disappeared along with its rider, his father. This obsession with antique bicycles takes the narrator and readers alike on a voyage deep into aspects of Taiwan’s 20th-century history and culture.

And that was how it started: my obsession with antique bicycles flowed from my missing father.

Each new encounter takes us on a new journey, as that person reveals something of their past and their knowledge of these ‘iron horses’, in fact much of the book is written as Bike Notes 1, Bike Notes II, complete with illustrations of the different era bicycles, including the infamous Japanese war bike, the ‘Silverwheel’ and the notorious ‘Silverwheel Squad’.

The worst headache was the Silverwheel Squad. The Silverwheels traced the upper reaches of rivers and rode down into the jungle to launch one surprise attack after another.

In this way, the story meanders and diverges and then hooks into a subject and follows it a long way down its tributary, only to return and take another turn, meet another collector, owner, person, and even a long-lived elephant, who knows or might have known the owner, whom the narrator will meet and solicit their story patiently awaiting the moment they might reveal the connection to the bike, that might lead to his father.

The author uses conversation, flash backs of memory, war diaries, memoir and voice recordings to create a network of literary tributaries in bringing together this ambitious, far-reaching narrative that touches so many unique aspects of Taiwan’s history, culture, development and influences.

In the beginning these diversions are interesting and promising and somewhat intriguing, they are indeed historically significant as they reveal something of the life and influences of the era in which they occurred, especially around the time of the war, seeing it from the perspective of Taiwan and Japan, especially as war involved bicycle strategy and elephants, and we learn something about the work habits of a woman creating butterfly handcrafts and how her father learned to lure butterflies en masse to capture them.

However, I admit I became somewhat fatigued by the never-ending meandering, the prolonged encounters and diversions, to the point where I began to lose interest, despite avidly not wishing to. That could have been due to the length of the book, or perhaps that it is indeed a book of obsession, not quite to the same degree as Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, but with something of a similar feel, in the way the reader is pulled along on the journey, not quite sure of the destination. Or perhaps it is because of how ambitious a book it is, in covering so much that is unfamiliar, opening so many threads.

It’s clear that the author very much enjoyed putting this novel together, so much so he shares some of his writing philosophy at the end of the book, and I find myself somewhat forgiving him for having drawn out his story so, although I understand how he has lost less patient readers along the way.

Wu Ming Yi

For some, life experiences drive the writing process. But for me writing novels is a way of getting to know, and of thinking about, human existence. I’m just a regular guy who has, through writing, come to understand things I couldn’t have before, concerning human nature and emotion. I write because I don’t see the world clearly. I write out of my own unease and ignorance. The ancient Greek historian Polybius put it thus: ‘The most instructive thing is remembering other people’s calamities. To stoically accept the vagaries of fate, this is the only way.’ I write novels to know how to stoically accept the vagaries of fate.

And his final words, appreciated all the more by this reader, having made it to the end.

The only necessity is to keep pedalling – quietly, composedly, no matter how thirsty you are or how difficult it may be.

To buy a copy of The Stolen Bicycle, click on the image below, my affiliate link at BookWitty.

Note: Thank you to Text Publishing for providing a review copy of the e-book to read.

23 thoughts on “The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi tr. Darryl Sterk

  1. Pingback: Man Booker International Prize 2018 long list – Word by Word

    • I’ve only read two and they couldn’t be more different, your review of Flights has me intrigued by that one, any other “must-reads” on the list from what you’ve read (judging aside, just personal instinct)?

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      • Flights has turned out to be my favorite of them all, so I can breathe a sigh of relief that at least that one made the short list. What a crazy list the official judges came up with! I can’t believe they left of this, and Die, My Love, not to mention Go, Went, Gone. The later is not Erpenbeck’s best book, in my opinion, but it is quite necessary to consider in our current situations with refugees. Not just Germany is asking those important questions, and trying to figure out what to do.

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  2. This book may not be for me because I would really struggle with the pacing and meandering. However, I do like the sound of the premise, the setting and the fact that you mention that the Taiwan culture had a strong presence in the narrative. Its a culture that I don’t know anything about so that would be interesting to read about.

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    • Yes, that’s partly why I read it and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I learned in reading this, but I have to be honest in that it just was too much, perhaps a little over-indulgent on the part of the author, although a number of the more exclusively literary readers following the prize have rated this quite highly. I would love to read something else by this author that was a little more concise.

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    • After I wrote the review I read a few others and I’m not the only one who uses that word to describe it. It has so many great qualities and I generally have a lot of patience with books, but I couldn’t keep up with all the threads by the end and the novelty had worn off. Still I’m glad I read it, and made it to the end, and I did enjoy the author’s personal notes at the end too, but you have to be prepared for the marathon effort required in the mast third particularly. I’ll be interested to see if it progresses through to the short list.

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  3. I love those quotes from the author about his writing process, but am not so sure, as others have said, about the ‘meandering’ of the main story. That said, as I get older, I increasingly enjoy the ‘journey’ aspect of books rather than needing a page turner. How would you say this book compares with the writing of, say, Elizabeth Strout or Marilynne Robinson (completely different writers from Wu Ming-Yi of course but perhaps similar in attempting to convey explorations of the human condition without very much happening story-wise)?

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    • I think the aspirations of the author in what he hopes to learn through writing are an intention, something he is still exploring. I would suggest he is of a curious mind, as he digresses into and listens to the stories of these people’s lives and shares his own obsession with the different models of bikes, so it’s less revealing about the human condition and more perhaps about what they’ve lived through in different eras and circumstances. Elizabeth Strouth can fill a whole book without leaving the hospital room and yet the reader is riveted and engaged throughout, because she delves deep into the human condition. I think Wu Ming-Yi could do so also if he stuck with one of the stories and sets of characters and explored that, but that’s not what this book does, it embraces widely and far and many things do happen in the many lives it traverses. He has been compared to W.G Sebold and some are mentioning Haruki Murakami, although personally I was reminded more of Orhan Pamuk while reading, although his character was obsessed with a woman, not with finding a bicycle.

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      • Thank you so much for taking the trouble to reply so comprehensively, Claire, and with such fascinating thoughts. I am trying to push myself more towards authors who are less well-known to me, and are from countries where I have only limited knowledge. Pamuk is definitely on my target list, so it is interesting that you mention him here. I take your point about Wu Ming-Yi’s breadth over depth. Getting a library copy will allow me to dip my toe in! Have a great weekend 🙂

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  4. This was one book from the IMBP list I wasn’t keen to read – I hadn’t particularly taken to The Man with the Compound Eyes. Your use of ‘meandering’ and reference to The Museum of Innocence (one of the most tedious books I’ve read!) suggests I was right.

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    • To be fair, it was only in the last third I started to feel the ‘Museum of Innocence’ effect, and I definitely preferred this narrator’s obsession and voyage through the many people he meets in tracking the bike down. I thought Pamuk was trying to make his readers know what it felt like to be completely obsessed, to feel the symptoms of it, and in this book, there are a group of elephants that make a wearying journey to China, half of them dying on the way, that’s what happened to me by the end, I survived the journey, but suffered the symptoms of weariness, as if I was one of those elephants, with the long memory of all the stories and experiences that had come before. I’m interested to see how it will be perceived by the judges. Wu Ming-Yi has quite a fan club, judging by the vocal uproar that came about when they temporarily caved in to political pressure to change his nationality to Taiwan, China and then reverted it again after that protest.

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  5. I think I read recently that there’s a bit of controversy about this books nomination because it’s described now as ‘Chinese’ rather than Taiwanese – or was that something different?! Anyway it’s in my pile to read on back of its Booker nomination – and now that you’ve compared it to the Museum of Innocence that I absolutely loved, i think I’ll give this a go before too long!!

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    • Yes, I read yesterday that the Man Booker facebook page got bombarded with 1 star reviews after they temporarily changed his nationality to Taiwan, China and then not long after changed it back to just Taiwan. I think they’re going to change the rules to name just the home country and not “nationality” to avoid getting into diplomatic incident. The commentary on their FB site was interesting, articulate and prolific, I hope it doesn’t impact their judgement of the actual book, but it can’t help but have affected the mood I’m sure.
      I think you might enjoy this one, it’s a bit of a mix of people’s lives and the historical context overlaid by one man’s obsession, but not everyone wants to read about hunting down antique bike collector repairmen and parts and pieces, although personally I did find all that and those characters quite fascinating. You can feel that it’s in some way autobiographical.

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  6. Thank you Claire for your wonderful review, you have a gift with words. I’d love to read a novel written by you 🌷😊

    On to the book , THE STOLEN BICYCLE, hmmm…I have the novel however it will wait at the bottom of my tbr for now 😏

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  7. I am generally a fan of meandering and also anything that brings the process of writing into the book so I remain curious to give this one a try. The lure of the culture is another positive. It remains on the list – though perhaps as a library loan rather than a purchase. Such a good review, Claire 🙂

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  8. This was one that was in my top five to read but I plumped for Frankenstein in Baghdad purely because I could actually get a copy, which is odd as Taiwan is the closest country to me at present. . I look forward to reading this one soon, despite its challenges.

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