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. But as you listen to them, you feel like they have been woken up, and end up breathing them in. Needle-like, they poke along your spine into your brain before stinging you, hot and cold, in the
The Stolen Bicycle is the on this year’s Man Booker International Longlist. It’s the seventh of the thirteen I’ve read — and yet another strong contender.
This is an absolutely gorgeous novel, both graphically with the author’s own hand-drawn illustrations of bicycles and hand-written Chinese writing opening and closing each of the History of the Bicycle chapters interspersed with the story, and with the prose which draws one in from the opening paragraph:
I must describe that morning for you, because every time something is described anew it becomes meaningful anew. I must start by letting the dawn spread out, the morning light stroll over the land. I have to take the trees, the houses in the village, the local school, the fields with their medleys of colour, and the little fishing boats swaying with the wind at the seashore, and place them one by one like chess pieces in the landscape.
Wu Ming-Yi wrote in a 2007 novel, Route in a Dream, albeit as yet untranslated, about his family history and his father who “went to Japan at the age of thirteen to work in the naval weapons factory in Kanagawa Prefecture to make fighter planes.” The narrator’s father in the novel has a similar history, and, as with Wu’s father, the novel ends with his disappearance. But then:
Not long after it was published, a letter from a reader appeared in my inbox. This was out of the ordinary, because there weren’t too many readers writing me emails back then, and I’d never heard from this one before. The reader, who signed off as Meme, asked me something I’d never thought about: At the end of the novel, the narrator’s father, Saburo, rides his bicycle to the Chung-shan Hall and then just disappears into thin air. He doesn’t return to the market, doesn’t go home. Where does he go? A bit messy, isn’t it? Even if I could bring myself to leave the loose thread hanging and stop worrying at it, what about that bicycle? Why would Saburo just ride his bike to the Chung-shan Hall and leave it there? To me, that bicycle is a symbol. It has to be. Fine. But where does that bicycle end up?
This led the author to ponder the difference between fiction and reality:
I found out early in my career as a writer that fiction and reality are so closely intertwined that any textual element is suspect—but treating anything in a novel as true is dangerous. For instance, in the novel Meme wrote to ask me about, the narrator was the son of the owner of an electrical appliances store. But actually my family ran a tailor’s shop, and later sold jeans, too. The truth of a novel does not depend on facts. That’s something any novelist understands. But a novel’s overarching structure is supported by what might be called ‘pillars of truth’.
I often feel that a novelist uses three pillars of truth to get the reader to believe in seven pillars of fiction and enter the castle he or she has created in language, whether it is opulent, squalid, fantastical or unreal. In my novel, the Chung-hwa Market was real, and so were the young workers who went to make warplanes in Japan. And my father did have a bicycle that disappeared when he went missing. But many of the story’s details were invented. For instance, though I have sometimes suffered from troubled sleep in real life, I have never experienced the war in my dreams. I did not have a girlfriend called Alice. (My then-girlfriend was called Teresa.) And I have no idea if my father parked his bicycle for the last time at the Chung-shan Hall.
And although he wrote back to the reader pointing out the fictional nature of the story, he did in practice become, as a person, obsessed with the antique bicycles and what might have happened to his father’s bike, and as an author, wrote this novel, The Stolen Bicycle, originally published in 2015, fictionalizing his quest.
One of the early readers of this novel was Darryl Sterk, translator into English of one of Wu Ming-Yi’s books, and he does a wonderful job with the translation here.
In terms of the fictionalized story, the narrator (not to be confused 100% with the author) explains:
Twenty years ago, when 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 Father and his iron steed had left us together.
Pa’s last bicycle was a Lucky. The only thing I remember about that bike is that it was unisex: you could adjust the top tube, turning a man’s bike into a woman’s. From then on, wherever this early Lucky unisex model turned up, I would go take a look. And that was how it started: my obsession with antique bicycles flowed from my missing father.
Taiwan is, of course, today known as home of the largest cycle manufacturer in the world, the appropriately named Giant, but the first large scale domestic manufacturer, competiting with the Fuji bikes from Japan and Raleigh from the UK, was Lucky:
Ride Your Way to Luck — that was their slogan. It didn’t matter if you were starting a family or a business, if you were getting hitched or trying to get rich — first you needed a bicycle.
Lí Tsìn-ki had a good head for business. He advertised on billboards at train stations island-wide. He commissioned a radio jingle and booked airtime to get the word out. Even more radically, he organised a club that went on weekly rides he led himself. And he did it sixty years before the chairman of Giant Bicycles did.
And incidents involving stolen and lost bicycles are keen to the (fictional) family history, particularly as seen by his mother. Note also the use of Mandarin vs. Taiwanese language in the following, another key to the novel, as are Japanese and also indigenous language (what the author refers to in his afterword as Taiwan’s linguistic polyphony)
‘Iron horses have influenced the fate of our entire family,’ my mother used to say. I would describe my mother as a New Historicist: to her, there are no Great Men, no heroes, no bombing of Pearl Harbor. She only remembers seemingly trivial—but to her fateful—matters like bicycles going missing. The word for fate in Mandarin is ming-yun, literally ‘life-luck’ or ‘command-turn’. But ‘fate’ in my mother’s native tongue of Taiwanese is the other way round: ?n-mi?. It belies fatalism, putting luck in front of life, suggesting you can turn the wheel of fate yourself instead of awaiting the commands of Heaven.
Even the term used for a bicycle itself matters — Ma’s “iron horses” being one such word:
In the world I grew up in, the word a person used for ‘bicycle’ told you a lot about them. Jiten-sha (‘self-turn vehicle’) indicated a person had received a Japanese education. Thih-bé (‘iron horse’) meant he was a native speaker of Taiwanese, as did Khóng-bîng-tshia (‘Kung-ming vehicle’), named for an ancient Chinese inventor. Tan-ch’e (‘solo vehicle’), chiao-t’a-ch’e (‘foot-pedalled vehicle’) or tsuhsing-ch’e (‘auto-mobile vehicle’) told you they were from the south of China.
As the narrator becomes an expert on antique bicycles , searching for one type in particular, the bike his father rose, he encounters others, e.g. A-pu:
A-pu was somewhere between an aficionado, a collector and a dealer.
At the end of that cul-de-sac, we talked about all aspects of classic bicycle design, just like literary types talk about Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino or modern art buffs talk about Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.
The toolkit on the table, which he’d had since he was an apprentice, included a double-headed spanner, a spoke wrench, a set of Torx-type hex wrenches, a pedal spanner and a chain tool, though the master had always referred to them in Japanese: ry?guchi supana, sup?ku renchi, Torx renchi, pedaru supana, ch?n kiri. These tools had been with him for decades. Each was pitted and scarred, and had a distinctive gleam. The master said that of all his tools, these were the handiest. He never seemed to get used to the new tools the sales reps gave him and had carried on using his own instead. A-pu felt the heft of a cast-iron wrench, examined the serial number stamped on its handle, and imagined how bright and shiny it must have been when the young master first picked it up, confident that with it there was no bolt he could not turn.
There is a Seiobo There Below-like element to these and similar passages, the reverence of an expert for their tools and their trade, expressed later on in his father’s love for making suits:
Pa had a word for the art or skill a person carried around with him: kang-hu, a homophone in Taiwanese for kung-fu.
Choosing materials was kang-hu, taking measurements was kang-hu, pick-stitching collars by hand was kang-hu, mark-stitching the tailor’s monogram in white thread was kang-hu, pressing with the iron to create line was kang-hu, even serging and buttoning was kang-hu, and not just technique. What was the difference between kang-hu and technique? Pa said that things made with kang-hu have soul.
Kang-hu was consummate technique matched with unusual resolve, and had nothing to do with ethics or morality.
Taiwan was, of course, under Japanese rule from 1895–1945, leading to a complicated history, particularly in the Second World War where people seem to have ended up on both sides — some working or even fighting for the Japanese (as with the narrator’s father) and others against them, neither group really fighting for themselves:
During the war, a battle to the death had been fought in the jungle Gunung Yong Belar overlooks to the west — a battle between a strategic force, hungry for the natural resources needed to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and a defending force, made up of men who had gone willingly east to colonise an ancient empire and the colonised peoples they had drafted. No individual fought in that battle, master of his own fate. Everything—the gun in his hand, the clothes on his back, the boots on his feet, his puttees, even his fingernails, brain and blood—all belonged to the Imperial Army or the British Empire.
Even bicycles can tell us about history:
People who haven’t actually confronted an old iron horse can hardly understand how rust can reveal an era, a geographical environment, the owner’s habits and the industrial artistry that went into its creation.
And in the novel, Wu Ming-Yi manages to inform us not just about the Second World War, but also Taiwan’s once booming butterfly handicraft industry, zoos, elephants (and the role of elephants — again on both sides — in the War) and the key role played by Japan’s fabled Silverwheel Squad of cycle-based soldiers in the campaign in Burma and in the invasion of Singapore.
The story that results can get quite tangled — one point I found myself trying to work out exactly why the narrator is pushing an elderly lady around a zoo while she tells him an involved story of a Japanese bird-watching friend of hers who became lost in the Taiwanese mountains — but never less than fascinating.
As mentioned, language is key to the novel — as the author explains in an afterword:
The first of these was the way I handled . I didn’t want the language to make it difficult for the reader to get into the story, but I also wanted to convey how a specific character thought and talked. To that end, after rendering the sense in Chinese characters, I also often supplied the sound in phonetic symbols or Romanisation — for the reader to linger over, or even, like an incantation, read aloud. I’ve always believed that language is not just a means of communication — that it is fundamentally poetic. Languages are not mere casks for wine; the cask makes the wine. This is a principle I hope you will keep in mind when you drink at the cup of this novel.
How much of this could be preserved in translation is difficult to say. An interview with both author and translator is illuminating (see here), but what one can say is that Sterk has done a wonderful job and the resulting work in English is a truly beautiful read.
Highly recommended and thanks to the MBI jury for a wonderful discovery.