The One with the Taiwan Bike Lost in the Jungle

Wu Ming Yi, The Stolen Bicycle (Origin. Chinese 2015; English 2017)

You guys, this book… I’m not sure I should brag or be ashamed, but it took me 5 months to read it, and I have no idea what I read most of the time.

I am no fan of bicycles (I don’t even know the technical words in English or French for the different parts of a bike – and I didn’t learn), but I have a personal connection to Taiwan that made me want to read that book as soon as I spotted it on Netgalley. It’s rare enough to find a Taiwanese novel, but when it’s a book that has collected so many literary awards in its home country, it doesn’t quite matter if it’s over 400 pages… (or does it?)

Highbrow it is, definitely, and deep, and experimental, and full of historical references that I was only vaguely aware of, so… It’s not my usual cup of tea, but I’m glad I tried it.

At first glance the story seems pretty straightforward… at least at the beginning. As his ageing mother is sent to hospital (presumably for her final days) and his siblings gather around to take care of her, the narrator wants to track his father and his bicycle, who both disappeared 20 years ago. The man is convinced that if he’s able to find the bicycle, he’ll understand the truth about his father.

Now, it’s only one story of this book, where many other characters and bikes and stories are intertwined. The bikes are just a tool to show how Taiwan was influenced by Japanese technology (the small island being colonized by Japan from 1895 to 1945), and how Taiwanese people were part of the WW2 conflict on the Japanese side. The island was bombed by the US, the men were conscripted into the Japanese armies (but at lesser ranks than “real” Japanese). Part of the book is set in the Malaysian jungles where a lot of fighting took place, and a lot of gruelling sufferings and deaths. Not only men did die, but also nature and animals, and the book shifts its focus towards elephants (another surprising turn), in a deeply moving way. Elephants were used and abused as war transports, and then some found their way into zoos.

Some parts of the book are really heartbreaking. Wu Ming-Yi is nostalgic, but his emotions show through mundane details of fixing a bike in the proper way, or showing up at a café to meet someone who might have an ancient bike. So if you’re tempted by an adventurous, unexpected read out of your usual range, look to further.