The Stolen Bicycle by Ming-Yi Wu (translated from the Mandarin by Darryl Sterk, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

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Twenty years ago, when Father first went missing, it occurred to us 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.

Lucky brand bicycles, which in fact seem to bring no luck at all. Butterfly wings made into collages. Mudslides in the jungle of Burma and granades exploding. An orangutan named Mr. Ichiro, and elephants named Miss Ma and Ah Mei, so carefully portrayed they seem to have human characteristics. Red cedars and banyans within the branches of which one could climb to hide from enemy soldiers.

A man, on a search for his father.

Dead, or missing fathers, everywhere.

These images swirl in my head as I read, letting me know that I am reading about much more than just a stolen bicycle. This novel is about war and the horrendous things people have done to one another, but it is also gentle and insightful.

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 heart.

Some favorite quotes as I read:

“Brother had bawled on the whole way home on Ma’s back – well on his way to a career of annoying everyone around him to no end.”

“The boss had reached that age when loneliness starts to choke you and any company will do.”

“The truth of a novel does not depend on facts.”

“Then I did my best to forget about it. This is my habit in the face of uncertainty – I try not to think about things, hoping they’ll turn out fine.”

“Bicycles in War lists some of the advantages of war bicycles. For starters, bicycles were as fast and agile as cavalry, but didn’t have to eat, drink, shit, piss or sleep like a horse. A bicycle also won’t kick or bite. Even more important, a bicycle unit doesn’t consume gasoline like a motorcycle unit. And riding a bike is much quieter than riding a horse or driving a vehicle.”

“I was shocked to realise how quickly a familar face could fade from memory after just a few days’ absence.”

“But as I grew older, I discovered that people living for their own happiness often bring pain to those around them. They don’t seem able to consider their family members’ opinions, or their feelings. Everyone envies this kind of person. Sometimes I felt I was a lot like him, the difference being that I didn’t have the courage to face disapproval.”

“Emotionally he stayed underwater, only occasionally sending up a periscope.”

“If you can accept that – that some things aren’t meant to be, that you can’t get all you want – you can be more accepting in your own life.”

11 thoughts on “The Stolen Bicycle by Ming-Yi Wu (translated from the Mandarin by Darryl Sterk, Man Booker International Prize 2018)”

  1. Thanks Bellezza for your review of a book I plan to read. This sounds like a book full of insights. I’ve found the original, Chinese edition in eBook format. I think I’ll read that first then the English translation. From what you’ve quoted here, this is a gratifying read. Love this quote, “The truth of a novel does not depend on facts.” So different from the book I just read and reviewed, also about a war and the people who had gone through the traumatic experiences, unfortunately, leaving readers with few insights.

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    1. How wonderful that you can access it, literally, in Chinese! I would love to be able to read any of these books in their original language, yet I am happy that they have been translated into mine. They offer such richness in a new perspective, not to mention the incredible quality of writing.

      Some of the Shadow Panel has mentioned thatthis smacks of Haruki Murakami, I suppose with some magical realism elements. It is overall gentle and lovely, and not nearly so gruesome as the likes of The Narrow Road To The Deep North which brought the atrocities of war right into my living room.

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      1. Someone has bought me an actual copy of the book in Taiwan! What a bonus! So many books, so little time. And we’re doing Middlemarch in May, I look forward to that. Will have an intro. post up maybe later in April.

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        1. I am really looking forward to Middlemarch with you in May! Have written it in my Midori and already have a copy on my nook. But, I may buy one in paper as that is so much nicer. How lovely to have The Stolen Bicycle from Taiwan!!! We must talk when you finish. xo

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    1. Thanks, Suko. Sometimes, I am so daunted by the author’s skill that the best way to give an indication of the strength of the novel is to use the author’s words themselves. Plus, I like recording the beautiful quotes to remember or ponder myself.

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  2. I have a hard time readong about war, but this one is nothing like The Narrow Road to the Deep North’s horrific description. This one is very managable, and quite lovely in so many places. There are bits of magical realism which I think you may enjoy as I did.

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  3. I loved this book. I felt lost in it. Our was so sad without being emotionally manipulative. Not sure what I think about the narrator, who always seemed to be hiding, but still felt like I know him.

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    1. I really enjoyed this book, too. I liked the magical realism, I loved the animals, I was intrigued by the bicycles (that being one of my favorite sports). I felt lost in a few places, as we traversed over many!, but the overall effect was lovely and sad. In a good way.

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