Twenty years ago, when my father first went missing, it occurred to us that if we could find his bicycle, we might find him. Only then did we discover that his bicycle was gone, too – that Pa and his iron steed had left us together.
Wu Ming-Yi, The Stolen Bicycle
I’ve found it’s hard to go wrong with books that have been on the Man Booker prize list, so when I found this work by chance in a bookshop in Taipei – and with the word ‘bicycle’ in the title – I grabbed it straight away. It was a good decision. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Realising that the author, Wu Ming-Yi, lives and lectures in Hualien, home of the Taiwan KOM Challenge, where I lived myself for two years, led me to reach out to him online and thank him for writing this fantastic story. Discussing the novel and then moving on to our shared love (obsession?) with bicycles, we share bicycle photos and cycling stories like a couple of raincoat-wearing trainspotters.
The novel is based around the narrator’s search for his father, who disappeared when the man was just a boy, along with his trusty ‘Lucky’ bicycle.
No matter how I tell it, this story has to start with bicycles. To be more precise, stolen bicycles. ‘Iron horses have influenced the fate of this family,’ my mother used to say.
Wu weaves a tale consisting of a variety of fabrics that seem at times to be disassociated yet at no time is the novel ever disjointed. You realise very soon on in the book that you’re being led by a master storyteller, much as the narrator, Ch’eng, is when his obsession with his father leads him to seek out and learn from masters of antique bicycle restoration.
Ch’eng’s search for his father’s bicycle begins when he receives an email from a reader of a short story he wrote about his father’s disappearance, asking if his bicycle also disappeared. The search takes him, and us, deep into the history of early 20th century bicycles, back to the Japanese colonial era, “when a bicycle was like a Mercedes-Benz today”.
Through various characters that Ch’eng becomes intertwined with, we learn of the now long-gone butterfly industry, driven by a craze in Japan for copies of famous paintings made using various different butterfly wings, that led to the extinction of several species in Taiwan. We travel to the interior of the country to meet an indigenous man who is corralled into the Japanese Imperial Army and sent to serve in Asia, moving from battle to battle on various ‘iron horses’. We spend several often harrowing pages with Lin Wang, the world’s oldest elephant, who also went to war and ended up in Taipei Zoo.
The novel comes together beautifully in the final chapters, all the fascinating fabrics being expertly threaded together by Wu, leaving us with a deeply moving work that I was sad to finish. This is so much more than a ‘book about a guy and an obsession with bikes’ and yet, that is also what it is. The bicycle is as constant and as central to the novel as the narrator himself. The bike for Ch’eng is a way of seeing, feeling and even understanding the world.
Interspersed in the book are little chapters called Bike Notes, which serve as nothing short of love letters to bicycles. Each is prefaced with a quote, such as this:
The moment a man traverses a mountain range on a bicycle, he’s like the first Mongolian who ever leapt onto a wild horse on the steppe – a rearing, snorting, bucking creature no one had ever thought to tame, because taming it would be unthinkable. The rider’s body senses the earth moving beneath him, a sensation Hans had never known before, and which remains impossible to measure.
German bicycle designer, Karl Nicolai.
Here’s an extract from Bicycle Notes VI:
Little Hsia once told me it was an obsession for him: finding an antique bicycle somewhere in the street, asking after the owner, tracking him down, waiting until he was willing to meet you, listening to the story of him and the bike, finally persuading him to let you have it, inspecting it, seeing what parts are replaced, damaged or missing, locating replacements and finally mounting them. He was completely caught up in it, every step of the way.
Wu here is not really writing about Little Hisa, but about himself. I realised this when he sent me these images below of his own bicycle collection.
The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-Yi. Thoroughly recommended.