Of Bicycles and War: A Review of Wu Ming-yi’s ‘The Stolen Bicycle’The latest novel by the award-winning Taiwanese author interlaces devastating events with a touch of tenderness
Wu Ming-yi’s (吳明益) fifth novel《單車失竊記》(The Stolen Bicycle) pays tribute to the millions of soldiers who died during World War II and the countless animals and natural habitats that were destroyed in the cataclysm. Written in traditional Chinese, the novel follows the protagonist as he sets off on a search for his father’s stolen bicycle, a popular Made-in-Taiwan Happiness Brand bicycle (the brand used the slogan “Get on a Happiness, Bike Your Way to Happiness” (騎幸福牌腳踏車，踏上幸福之路).
The unnamed middle-age male protagonist, a writer like Wu himself, whose father is a skilled tailor at the Chung Hwa Market, receives a letter from a reader asking what happens to the father’s bicycle left at Taipei Zhongshan Hall in his last novel,《睡眠的航線》(Route in a Dream). The letter immediately grips the protagonist’s heart and he embarks on a journey of discovery, tracing back the history of the Happiness bicycles between the years 1950 and 1980. As the protagonist digs into history, he learns about how Japanese armies employed thousands of bicycle-riding soldiers in World War II. “The iron horses” — or thih-bé (鐵馬), the Taiwanese way of saying bicycle — “had a strong influence on the fate of our families,” is the thesis clearly stated in the opening pages of the novel, and one that constantly re-emerges as the story progresses.
One intriguing character in the novel is Abbas, a young Taiwanese Aborigine and aspiring war photographer. The visit to Abbas’ house unfolds in a series of vividly realized details and encounters. Readers learn most of the wartime memories and war journals from the second-hand accounts of tapes and recordings. We learn that animals and the forest were as devastated by the war as were humans. These mini tales, told by principal characters like Abbas, are the most compelling elements of the novel.
Wu’s favorite location, the Chung Hwa Market in the early 1990s, around the time when the government decided to demolish the area, is revisited here. Furthermore, his work contains a number of references to Wu’s early books, including his best-selling non-fictions on butterflies. Using an everyday object like an old bicycle, Wu shows his extraordinary skills at crafting a unique work of fiction. His ambition is to write of a “time beyond mourning” (無法好好哀悼的時代), about a war he did not experience, which is brave and troubling at the same time. It is brave because of his desire to craft an intimate, mournful and thoughtful fiction; it is troubling because his narration is unconvincing, unreliable, and not as graphic as we expect from war fictions. Nevertheless, as one of the most eagerly awaited novels of the year, the story presents us with Wu’s signature beautiful nature writing and past memories.
Contemporary Taiwanese literature had been quiescent in the West until the English translation of Wu’s novel The Man with the Compound Eyes in 2013. The Stolen Bicycle is a compelling study of bicycles in wartime. It is a work of astonishing energy, in which Wu beautifully touches on loss, life and death, fate and destiny, establishing emotional connections between memory and objects, and between the natural world and war. In the end, it is less about a novelist’s nostalgic musings on the terrible events of the past than it is about creating a novel that provides comfort and reconciliation from a wounded past.
《單車失竊記》The Stolen Bicycle
396 pp, Taipei: Rye Field Publishing Co, 2015
Yahsin Huang is a technology journalist based in Taipei who writes mostly for Make magazine (Taiwan), Event Platform, and TechLife.