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

Thu, May 17, 2018 - Page 14

This is a very strange novel, and a very beautiful one. It’s set in Taiwan, mostly in Taipei, and in part in modern times, in that people are seen on the MRT reading things on their cell-phones. But its focus is on the past, and especially on the time, some 70 years ago, when people all had bicycles, usually just one. One life, one bicycle, as the narrator remarks.

Over and above all else, this book is poetic. There’s nothing rhapsodical about it, but it’s poetic nonetheless in the way writing about old rag-and-bone shops, as the poet Yeats would have it, or old curiosity shops, such as the one Dickens wrote about, are poetic.

There is no real story, which adds to the poetry, though the old world of Taiwanese bicycle brands such as Lucky — “Ride Your Way To Luck” — and many other bicycles (such as the Fuji Monarch) is approached via childhood incidents, very probably autobiographical.

What disorients the reader even further is whether or not this is a novel at all, as the author refers to earlier books he has written without the slightest pretense of artifice. Literary movements and older recent novelists such as Haruki Murakami and Umberto Eco also get mentioned as does the UK artist Damien Hirst: the author is unmoved by his art but likes his titles. The result is that the whole idea of “fiction” is constantly being called into question.

MAN BOOKER FIASCO

The Stolen Bicycle made the headlines recently because the book was announced as having made the long-list for the UK’s Man Booker International Prize, with the author being described as from Taiwan. China pouted, and Man Booker subsequently changed it to “Taiwan, China.” But the prize effectively reverted to its original wording last month when it announced that from now on authors would be listed according to their territories, with Wu Ming-yi (吳明益) again listed under “Taiwan.”

This is the sort of book that looks at history through everyday life rather than, say, political events. “I can tell you,” the narrator says, “that this small island nation, kept perpetually busy in the twenty-first century by scandal and shock, typhoons, landslides, political drama and stock market crashes, is home, nevertheless, to a group of enthusiasts who, like members of some secret underground organization, are brought together by their strange obsession with Lucky bicycles.”

Other items nowadays most often found in second-hand shops also feature, such as a Sony CFS-300S tape deck from the 1980s that could also receive FM and short wave radio.

And then there are pictures made from butterfly wings. These dominate a long section of the novel, and we’re informed that Taiwan exported tens of millions of butterflies annually in the 1960s and 1970s, and that they were a significant source of foreign currency.

An iguana, bulbuls, a very affectionately described orangutan, plus coffee from Laos (they don’t produce a lot, but the flavor is distinctive) all appear in the memorable mixture that is this book.

But bicycles, though they tend to fade from view somewhat in the central section, remain dominant. The famous Taiwanese poet Lai Ho (賴和, 1894-1943) is cited as someone who valued his bicycle and took it with him to the police station when called in for questioning.

The military use of bicycles also comes under scrutiny. During World War II the Japanese, after training in Taiwan, used them on their progress down the Malay peninsula towards Singapore. They had over 10,000 of them, and the contingents were known, from the bikes’ brand, as Silverwheels.

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”).

BICYCLES AND ELEPHANTS

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.