Christine Sun reviews The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
The Stolen Bicycle
by Wu Ming-Yi,
Translated by Darryl Sterk
Text Publishing 2017.
Reviewed by CHRISTINE SUN
Award-winning novelist Wu Ming-Yi is perhaps the only Taiwanese author ever invited to the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) in the past two decades. It seems easy to forget the island democracy ever exists, for any attempt to recognise Taiwan as an independent, sovereign state is frowned upon and accused as “interference in China’s domestic affairs” by Beijing. Worse, as the world becomes increasingly wary of China’s political and economic dominance, it is often the oppression faced by Chinese and even Hong Kong authors that draws attention from international literary festivals. “No news is good news” is the consensus about Taiwan, where approximately 40,000 titles are freely released by more than 100 publishers every year.
Hence it is difficult for Taiwanese authors to emerge on the world stage without any political, cultural and even ethnical reference to China. In Australia, for example, Chinese authors Sheng Keyi and Murong Xuecun received much coverage as they discussed censorship and the “potentially dangerous undercurrents in China” in Griffith Review and during the MWF, the Brisbane Writers Festival and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2015. In contrast, media professionals, critics and reviewers only had Wu’s literary merits to rely on when featuring his appearances in Melbourne and at the University of Sydney in 2017. In the words of Readings: “[Wu’s] work, noted for its depth, complexity and vividly observed natural detail, has been compared to that of distinguished writers as diverse as Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, W.G. Sebald, David Mitchell and Yann Martel.”
But what does it all mean, exactly? Especially when anglophone readers have long been swamped and spoiled by China-related literary themes such as oppression of universal human rights, inequality and violence against women, individual struggles for freedom and independence, and trauma caused by political and social turmoil such as the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square Massacre? It seems fair to suggest anyone intending to understand contemporary Taiwanese literature within a “Chinese” framework will meet a dead end. The “One China” policy is doomed when it comes to literature, always the best indicator to a nation’s psyche, for 70 percent of people in Taiwan under the age of 40 – and 78 percent of people aged 29 or younger – now hold an exclusively Taiwanese identity. That is a sharp contrast to survey results in 1991, when one-fourth of Taiwan’s residents identified themselves exclusively as “Chinese” and nearly half claimed to be “both Taiwanese and Chinese”.
More importantly, Taiwan, like many other countries around the world, boasts an ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse society. The island’s turbulent past – first inhabited by the Austronesian Peoples and then invaded by Dutch and Spanish forces, before being colonised by China and Japan – adds much complexity to its status as a strategically important gateway to Asia. While Chinese migrants arriving since the mid-16th century laid the foundation of modern Taiwanese history, there is no denial that Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and the Japanese occupation made important contribution to the formation of what is known today as the Taiwanese identity. Rich in conflict, reconciliation and determined pursuit of peace, it is an identity burdened with loss yet blessed by perpetual intellectual and emotional struggle for harmony.
This Taiwanese identity, with the passing and re-discovery of many precious memories, is carefully, confidently and compassionately explored in Wu’s The Stolen Bicycle. As the first-person narrator “I” searches for his missing father’s stolen bicycle, he starts collecting similar man-powered two-wheelers that were once an essential part of ordinary Taiwanese trade and transport under Japan’s rule. In the process of researching and tracking down the missing parts, repairing the damaged “iron horses” and restoring their former functionality, he is also piecing together the history of his family and that of Taiwan’s war-torn generations. In the same way that the value of daily objects derives from their being constantly and continuously used, the past lives on as long as we remember it.
And what a scarred and sorrowful past Wu has given us via his vivid and veracious representation of the Second World War’s legacy on the Taiwanese people. Yet a strange sense of peace lingers as each of the characters finds fulfilment in understanding and accepting their profound loss. Abbas, the philosophical photojournalist, pinpoints what is lacking in his art after discovering the bicycle that his father buried deep in the jungles of Northern Burma decades ago is now wrapped in the centre trunk of a huge tree. Pasuya, the aboriginal warrior uprooted and broken by the bloody Malayan Campaign in which he was forced to participate, finds solace in his reunification with a war elephant. Old Tsou, the shabby soldier who has hated the Japanese “savages” all his life, spends his remaining years in a gloomy, derelict village looking after a bird that he believes is a Japanese air cadet. And Shizuko, an orphan of war who lived through the February 28 Incident in 1947 and the following decades of White Terror in which tens of thousands of civilians were massacred, imprisoned or simply “disappeared” in their struggle for Taiwanese independence, is comforted by the fact that a handful of zoo animals were cared for after the destruction of Japanese operations in Taiwan by American warplanes in 1944.
Some may argue it is closure that these characters have found, but it is precisely the journey they undertake in search for the meaning of their loss that nourishes and sustains them, allowing them to realise the point is not and has never been what they lost. Instead, what is important is what they once cherished and what they now choose to remember.
The Buddhist concept of the Four States of Phenomena in the Principle of Physics – formation, existence, destruction and emptiness – may help illustrate Wu’s conceptualisation of objects such as bicycles. However, what makes The Stolen Bicycle unique is Wu’s focus on the significance of objects in the context of our attempt to find/form/foster/facilitate meaningful existence out of nothingness. Take A-hûn, who transforms the macabre into art in her work of making butterfly collages:
Some of the butterflies weren’t completely dead, and when she made the cut, their mouthparts thrust forward and their legs would suddenly constrict. She found it strangely fascinating, and at the moment the beautiful wings were separated from the ugly body, she seemed to touch something akin to her soul… A collage’s value was determined by the complexity of the design, the number of butterfly wings and the variety of species used. Basically, the more lives sacrificed, the more beautiful the result.
Another example is Squad Leader Mu, who survived the most horrendous battles against Japanese forces in Northern Burma:
When that time came looking for him, when pain came knocking out of nowhere at his door, he’d slip away into the woods… Every time he opened his eyes after a brief nap in Fort Li in the days they spent facing off against the Japanese, he saw the tree was still growing new leaves and the sun was still shining through the gaps. It was the most beautiful experience in his entire life. It reminded him he was still alive and that the tree was still alive.
Such diminutive yet determined defiance against the unstoppable may be seen as a major and uniquely Taiwanese theme in The Stolen Bicycle. As the first-person narrator “I” explains: “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: ūn-miā. 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.” Instead of letting the past be gone, lamenting the destruction of life experiences and memories and staring at the void that is left behind, the characters in The Stolen Bicycle take the initiative to remember. In the process of remembering they learn to understand all that has been while paying tribute to what remains eternal in their ever-changing world.
It must be said that Darryl Sterk, an expert in Taiwan’s local literature and indigenous cultures, did a fine job translating not only Mandarin and the Taiwanese dialect but also the indigenous language Tsou into English. The resulting writing in The Stolen Bicycle is eloquent and thought-provoking, as Sterk well conveyed the science and philosophy of Wu’s efforts to shed light on traces of extraordinary human spirit across the dark land that is Taiwan’s wartime history. Meanwhile, the MWF should be recognised for compensating its previous lack of attention to Taiwanese literature by offering not one but two events featuring both author and translator. It is rare that readers get to glimpse the fascinating difference between Wu’s and Sterk’s personal styles, to explore how truth, kindness and beauty can transcend across cultural and linguistic barriers, and to celebrate the successful marriage of two distinguished literary voices. It remains this reviewer’s hope that we will meet more Taiwanese authors and their translators at Australian literary festivals in the near future.
- Introduction to Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now (https://griffithreview.com/editions/new-asia-now/). Retrieved on January 29, 2017.
- Introduction to Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle by Readings (https://www.readings.com.au/products/24092027/the-stolen-bicycle). Retrieved on January 25, 2018.
- Austin Horng-en Wang, Brian Hioe, Fang-Yu Chen and Wei-ting Yen, “The Taiwanese see themselves as Taiwanese, not as Chinese”, The Washington Post, January 2, 2017 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/02/yes-taiwan-wants-one-china-but-which-china-does-it-want/?utm_term=.c4db3c548d54). Retrieved on January 25, 2018.
- The Stolen Bicycle, p.118.
- The Stolen Bicycle, p.342.
- The Stolen Bicycle, p.7.