Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle (translated by Darryl Sterk) is only the second of his books to be translate into English. Wu Ming-Yi is a Tawainese author, described as an artist, designer, photographer, literary professor, butterfly scholar and environmental activist and many of these concerns and interests emerge in The Stolen Bicycle.
The Stolen Bicycle is pitched as a companion piece to another book written by the book’s narrator about workers from Taiwan who went to work in Japan building fighter planes during World War 2. He included in that earlier book a scene where an ancient bicycle was left propped against a sign at the entrance to a forest. The narrator thought nothing of it until a reader wrote to him to ask him what happened to the owner of that bike. From this inquiry sprung The Stolen Bicycle, the story of one man’s search for origins of a machine that might have a connection to his missing father.
Due to a close family history involving bicycles, used and stolen at various times, the narrator of The Stolen Bicycle, Ch’eng, is obsessed with the machines. The narrator starts with the various terms for the vehicle – his preference is for the Taiwanese name – Thih-be (iron horse). While he will take any old bike and try to restore it to its former glory he is particularly interested in tracking down one of his father’s stolen bicycles. Within the book he not only traces back the history of Lucky Bicycles, the brand that his father rode, from 1850 through to 1980, but other famous brands and styles.
But this is not really a book about bicycles. In his quest to find the bike, the narrator meets a range of people who lead him down a number of trails into the past and the recent history of Tawian and the Tawianese. In particular, many of the stories in the book revolve around the Asian front during World War Two. For example, the story of how the Japanese used bicycles in their invasion of Asia and conquest of Singapore. These stories branch off to look not only at the use of bicycles in that conflict but also the use of elephants. As well as sections specifically about the history and use of various types of bicycles, a number of interludes overlap with these story. One involves a woman who makes collages out of butterfly wings, another involves a series of transcribed tapes about experiences during World War Two.
The Stolen Bicycle is a meditation on a number of themes. It is both contemporary and literary, has lengthy historical sections and deft touches of magical realism. The translation by Darryl Sterk tries to capture a number of languages and dialects while staying true to the meaning of the text. For Western readers, The Stolen Bicycle is not only a beautifully told and often poignant tale, but provides a window into Taiwanese culture and history and aspects of Twentieth Century history that are often ignored.