The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi

Posted April 4, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 6 Comments

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-YiTitle: The Stolen Bicycle (Goodreads)
Author: Wu Ming-Yi
Translator: Darryl Sterk
Published: Text, 2015
Pages: 416
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindleWordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018

According to the main character Ch’eng, the word someone uses for ‘bicycle’ can tell you a lot about a person. The term ‘jitensha’ (self-turn vehicle) might indicate a Japanese education, while ‘tanche’ (solo vehicle), ‘chaiotache’ (foot-pedalled vehicle) and ‘zixingche’ (self-propelled vehicle) indicate different parts of China. For Ch’eng, he prefers to use the Taiwanese word ‘thihbe’ (iron horse). The Stolen Bicycle is a novel about family history, and the history of the Japanese military in World War II, which was waging the same times.  However the book is centred of the iron horses in their lives, especially trying to uncover the mystery of a stolen bicycle.

Wu Ming-Yi is obsessed with bicycles, this whole book is full of the history of the bicycle industry. When he is not talking about the history of bicycles, Taiwan or the Japanese in World War II, he manages to weave in a compelling narrative that explores the bonds of family. The story turns into a meditation of memory, loss and life living in war times. Then it all comes back to bicycles, and that often feels tedious.

Throughout the narrative there are these ‘bicycle notes’ which are used to provide detailed history in regards to bicycles and the war. While I enjoyed the way Wu Ming-Yi used these sections to give the reader context, it was the way the information bleed into to other text that became a problem. Rather than being a meditation of life and family it felt more like an obsession with bicycles. Personally I think if this information remained in the ‘bicycle notes’, it would have been a stronger book.

Wu Ming-Yi is a literary professor and nature writer. He has written two books on butterflies in the past; The Book of Lost Butterflies (2000) and The Way of Butterflies (2003). To me, this feels like he is passionate about topics and it spills into his writing. I think Ming-Yi is a very strong writer and there is a lot to like about this, it just got harder and harder to motivate myself to finish the book. I had to petal through and now I never want to talk about bicycle ever again.

I am of two minds with this book, there is a lot to like about the novel; the writing, the narrative and the style were all great. It was just the constant talking about bicycles that made me want to run over cyclists in my car. If this was half the size, this would have been almost perfect. However, I am stuck in a place of love and hate when thinking about The Stolen Bicycle. I do suspect others will have a better reaction but I never want to see another bicycle in my lifetime.

6 responses to “The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi

  1. I almost gave up on this book too, not because of too much bicycle stuff, but because I often got lost, forgetting who the speaker was, and how they were related to the main plot of trying to find his dad’s bicycle. But I powered through, and ended up loving the book as a whole. It really came together for me in the end. It was weird to keep reading “iron horse” because here that means “train” (or, specifically in this city, a shitty night club called The Iron Horse that’s by some old train tracks, lol)

  2. I, like Laura, did not mind the bicycles as much as the confusing narrative. It was a bit tricky to keep track of everyone, and just whom, exactly, was speaking. I enjoyed the novel, but since I have read more from the list it isn’t in my top three. If I was riding by you on my Canondale, I hope you wouldn’t run me over. 😉

    • I’m glad others enjoyed the book more than me. I still have about six more books to read but I think this won’t make my top 6. You are on the other side of the world, so you might be safe from my vigilantism against cyclists.

  3. Rob

    Love the breaking down of the different words for bicycle. Not sure I’d want to read a book so focused on bikes, but that did draw me in.

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