Mind Trails

At the school I attended from pre-k through fifth grade was a wooded area with a network of nature trails where my teachers would often take us for walks. As a small boy, I marveled at the woods’ vastness, and since my classmates and I were always chaperoned, I never learned to navigate the trails on my own. Over the years, I grew familiar with certain features of the woods – a stream, a gully with planked steps going down one side and up the other, various pieces of Outward Bound equipment such as a balance beam and a climbing wall – but having never internalized the trail system, I never knew exactly where in the woods these features were located. Rather, I always came across them by chance, over and over again, as if for the first time. Even in later years, revisiting the forest as an adult and realizing that it cannot be as big and boundless as it seemed to me as a child, I found myself still unable to conjure a corresponding mental layout of it, to reduce even its diminished vastness to something defined and navigable. And so I rediscovered anew the moss-covered boulder, the swallows’ nest, and the cargo net. “Oh, I remember this,” I would say; but the memory was connected with the place only when I was at the place. At all other times, it was locationless, a thing that existed only in my mind, with no set position in the actual world.

At the school where I now teach in my fifties, there is also a system of trails in the woods. Aerial maps of the entire network are placed wherever two paths intersect, and it is easy for me to guide myself along the well-marked routes. However, I still cannot recall exactly where in that little world certain interesting things are. My favorite stretch of pathway is a sunken trail, with a foot or so of sand wall on either side; but it is unmarked on the signage and unfixed in my mind. I could not find it if I had to but am always pleased to see it open before me. The other day I took this picture of a giant mushroom, yet where it stands I cannot recall. It exists not in a definite place but only in my memory. Perhaps I will rediscover it on a future hike. Perhaps I won’t.

I feel like a knight on an Arthurian quest, advancing through a mysterious country, searching for whatever fate may place in my way.  

Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building made it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.