Approximately 180km east of the Middle Kingdom sits an island state commonly referred to as “The Bicycle Kingdom”. If you live in Japan, Europe, or North America and own a bicycle, there is a good chance that a number of its parts were manufactured in Taiwan. From ultra-light carbon fibre frames and the latest electric, smart and green technologies to various bike components ranging from tires, pedals, chains, saddles, grips, and even bike carriers for vehicles, Taiwan’s bicycle industry remains a global leader despite recent declines in exports and sales.
In this respect, one can speak reasonably of the industry’s life cycle, and Wu Ming-Yi’s absorbing novel The Stolen Bicycle offers a fascinating window into the infancy, gradual evolution, and enduring legacy of “the iron horse” in 20th-century Taiwan.
The novel revolves around present-day narrator, writer, and self-professed “bicycle fanatic” Ch’eng, whose family history with bicycles (particularly stolen ones) informs his own fiction. His father’s disappearance (along with his bike) years ago eventually becomes the raw material for one of his semi-fictional novels. It also kindles Ch’eng’s obsession with antique bicycles, which he assiduously collects, repairs, and restores.
A letter from a reader enquiring about the missing bicycle in his novel prompts Ch’eng to confront the unabated trauma of his own fatherless past and he sets out in search of his father’s bike, which he hopes will lead him to his father. With each person that he meets—among them, an antiques and memorabilia seller, an aspiring war photographer, an old war veteran, and an elderly Japanese woman with an abiding interest in zoology—he moves one step closer to resolving the nagging mystery of his father’s whereabouts.
Set within this meta-fictional framework is a rich, complex, and beautifully rendered historical tapestry that, as Wu indicates in his postscript,
has to do with the history of the Second World War, of Taiwan and the Taiwanese bicycle industry, and of zoo and butterfly handicraft history.
An author, artist, academic, and activist, the multimedial and multidisciplinary Wu is regarded as one of Taiwan’s most important contemporary writers and The Stolen Bicycle, which was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, is only his second book to be translated into English; Taiwan-based academic Darryl Sterk also translated 2013’s The Man With the Compound Eyes. (Although initially indicating Wu’s nationality as “Taiwan,” the Man Booker Prize organizers changed it to “Taiwan, China” under pressure from Beijing, only to revert back to its original designation after an international backlash as well as comments by the author himself.)
Since so much of the history recounted in The Stolen Bicycle is entangled in the sinuous lineaments of internecine violence and bloodshed across Southeast Asia, the true subject of Wu’s The Stolen Bicycle is war: war waged by men, war that maims and, in some cases, renders as objects the bodies of men, war from which neither animals nor the earth can escape. Throughout the novel, there is hardly a character unaffected in some way by the horrors of war, whether those ravages mark them physically or scar their memories and relationships, marriages and children, the stories they tell and the stories that are told about them.
Importantly, Wu’s edifying prose underscores the interconnectedness of all things. In a passage describing the Burma Campaign during WWII, the narrator reflects:
I tried to imagine how an incredibly massive banyan tree could bear a small village, the residents of Fort Li, who slept on the tree, bled on the tree, lost their hands and heartbeats on the tree, suffered sun and fogs of blood-sucking bugs. As parts of the tree were wacked off, bit by bit and branch by branch, men’s blood, flesh and guts were absorbed into the wood.
Here Wu signals the extent to which humans possess the unique potential to efface the natural world by inscribing their destructive impulses on it. This is especially important to remember in an age of nuclear meltdowns and the threats posed by nuclear weapons and environmental degradation. As the narrator warns elsewhere, “War breeds death, and brings no new life.”
Although a vehicle (literally and metaphorically) for lengthy explorations of the intertwined histories of Taiwan, Japan, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, the bicycle in Wu’s novel ultimately functions as an analogue for memory. Interspersed among its pages are separate sections of “Bike Notes”, quasi-philosophical meditations on the art of bicycle maintenance replete with sumptuous drawings of antique “iron horses”. Here we learn of the master mechanic who
stays focused, fine-tuning each adjustment, calibrating each screw, tightening it just right, so the bicycle will run smoothly, without creaks or rattles.
Something of a perfectionist himself, Ch’eng attempts to restore antique bicycles to their original condition, perhaps in an effort to stem “the inexorable power to corrupt that time has over all things.”
But metal rusts, rubber becomes brittle, plastic cracks, and the effects of time on a bicycle come to resemble time’s effects on memory and our ability to remember. Perhaps there is a certain unassimilability to time that we wish to ascribe to memory, a point that Ch’eng considers at the end of the novel:
Stories exist in the moment when you have no way of knowing how you got from the past to the present. We never know at first why they continue to survive, as if in hibernation, despite the erosive power of time.
Inevitably, some of those stories, like antique bicycles and memories and people’s lives, “just die like a fire going out.” As Wu concludes his postscript,