Thu, May 17, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Authorial digressions

In the Booker Prize-nominated ‘The Stolen Bicycle,’ the narrator tracks down his father’s bicycle, which has been missing for 20 years, and in the process uncovers the life histories of the various people who have owned it

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

This novel is put together in the manner of a patchwork quilt. The plot involves the narrator’s father having had his bicycle stolen 20 years previously, and the author’s subsequent attempts to track it down. He more or less succeeds, and in the process uncovers the life histories of the various people who owned it.

This is acceptable as far as it goes. The authorial interest in bicycles clearly isn’t sufficient to fill a whole book so other topics, most notably elephants, come to dominate later on. In fact, The Stolen Bicycle risks becoming more a book about the earth’s largest land-based mammal than the ingenious machine for getting from A to B with less effort than the same journey would take on foot. (A mathematician once told me that the reason for this difference was “friction”).


There’s no obvious connection between bicycles and elephants — they clearly just number among the author’s interests. We learn a lot about both, nonetheless: elephants, it turns out, can’t jump, and the hairs on their enormously thick skin are extremely sensitive. The Asian elephant, too, can be trained, whereas the African one can’t.

After all these digressions — World War II in Burma, elephants galore and even a not insignificant one on termites — the author, you feel, must surely come up with an ending that knits it all together, if only by its brilliance. But Wu seems to have become exhausted by his project because we never quite get this consummation.

The book in its original form contained many languages, including Japanese and Tsou, an Aboriginal language, according to the translator Darryl Sterk, a longtime Taipei resident. Wade-Giles is preferred because it was the Romanization system in use in the era in which much of the novel is set. The translator, incidentally, deserves real congratulation.

This unusual and deftly-crafted book seems destined to become something of a collectors’ item. Wu is precisely the kind of writer most likely to find his works elevated to the status of “literature” — unexpected, idiosyncratic, an original thinker with interests other than the academic, and in many ways a loner. So don’t miss this novel if you’re interested in reading what must be one of the best and most distinctive books modern Taiwan has to offer.

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