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


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.”