Fresh Meat: Decoded by Mai Jia

Decoded by Mai Jia is the story of a legendary codebreaker who is tasked with solving two devilish codes that seem to be the product of his old mentor (available March 18, 2014).

Decoded is the American debut of Mai Jia, one of China’s bestselling and most acclaimed authors. In China, Mai pulls off the rare combination of the highest literary acclaim matched with equally high sales. His books are instant bestsellers in China and all of his novels have been made into movies or TV shows.

Narrated by a journalist investigating a famed Chinese mathematical genius and revered codebreaker, Decoded stretches the boundaries of the spy genre and creates something totally unexpected and new.

The unnamed narrator pursues the life story of Rong Jinzhen, a legendary cryptographer who made a big splash and then vanished. The first quarter of the book is turned over to Rong’s childhood and family history. These pages not only give the reader insight into Rong’s fragile mental state but also provide historical background on late nineteenth and early twentieth century China.

Early one morning, the old man called Duckling to his bedside and gestured that he wanted a piece of paper and a pen. He wrote down the following message: ‘When I am dead, I want you to put pear flowers in my coffin.’ That evening, he called Duckling back to his bedside and again demanded paper and pen, so that he could give more detailed instructions: ‘I am eighty-nine years old and I would like eighty-nine pear flowers to be buried with me.’ The next morning he called Duckling to his bedside again and, once supplied with paper and pen, he made his wishes even more precise: ‘Work out how many days there are in eighty-nine years and then bury me with that number of pear flowers.’ Perhaps the old man was confused and fearful in the face of his oncoming death, for at the moment that he wrote these increasingly complex instructions, he seemed to forget completely that he had never taught Duckling any mathematics.

Although he had never formally been taught any mathematics, Duckling was quite capable of this kind of simple addition. It is part of life, everyday stuff: a moderately intelligent child, even if you don’t formally teach them this kind of skill, will still be able to manage it. If you look at it from that point of view, then Duckling had already received as much instruction in addition and subtraction as he needed, since every year when the pear blossoms began to fall from the trees, Mr Auslander would collect them and afterwards get Duckling to count them. When he had come up with the correct number, it would be noted on the wall. Later on, Mr Auslander might well get him to count them again and the total was written up a second time on the wall. That way, by the time that the flowers had all fallen, Duckling’s addition and subtraction had had a thorough work-out, not to mention his understanding of numbers and decimal places.

Soon the young, abandoned Rong [Jinzhen] finds himself in the tutelage of a mathematical genius and develops an almost supernatural ability to deconstruct the most challenging of equations. He’s a totally unique thinker who at a young age can run mathematical circles around even his professors.

After the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong tightens his grip on China, Rong is forced to join Unit 701, an elite branch of Chinese intelligence. Rong is tasked with breaking two impossibly devilish codes developed by Country X—presumably, but not certainly, the United States. These two codes, BLACK and PURPLE, start to take a mental toll on Rong. Complicating the whole matter is the fact that Rong’s former mentor has started to work for the rival nation and may have played a role in developing the ciphers.

Robert Oppenheimer, who is often called the father of the atom bomb, famously said: ‘In science, time is the real obstacle. Given unlimited time, everyone can learn all the secrets of the universe.’

Decoded is a unique blend of multi-generational literary fiction, mathematical theory, intense cryptography, and the shadowy, amoral world of espionage. Yet readers looking for gripping espionage, chases along rain-soaked streets, or Bourne-esque action should be cautioned. The book reads like a spy story told from an even farther emotional remove than John le Carré or Robert Littell. There’s no glamorization of Chinese spies—most of them are nameless bureaucrats—and Unit 701’s mountainous hideout is more like a Hobbit-hole than James Bond’s MI6.

In fact, to be honest, readers expecting a straight-up, old–fashioned “spy thriller” should probably look elsewhere. Decoded’s loose narrative style takes its time tracking the characters across the decades. There’s no breakneck pacing; there’s hardly any violence; there’s not a single gunshot fired. On the other hand, readers interested in a novel that takes a sneaky, yet detailed and vivid, tour of Chinese history through one man’s struggles should pick up this novel.

Decoded stitches together the narrator’s own explorations into Rong’s past with transcripts of interviews with Rong’s friends, family, and co-workers. We follow the narrator’s obsessive quest and soon realize he’s almost as gripped by Rong’s story as Rong was gripped by breaking PURPLE and BLACK.

For Mai, cryptography is not the key to national pride or world domination. If anything it’s a dangerous arena designed to snare geniuses in layers of confusion and deception. As he says:

[Codes] are a poison that mankind has developed to destroy science and a conspiracy against the people that work with them….it is a devilish intelligence.

Mai’s geniuses, perhaps like their real-world counterparts, are made vulnerable by their intelligence and creativity. They are simply not like other people. Drowning these brittle, brilliant people in the politics, nationalism, and just plain lies of the spy trade becomes not a source of national pride, but a source of shame.

Now, let’s be honest. Someone picking up an acclaimed, bestselling Chinese espionage novel might be forgiven for expecting propaganda—perhaps subtle propaganda, but still palpable. Yet that’s one of the brilliant things about this novel. Decoded doesn’t celebrate the Chinese state, it doesn’t vilify Country X, nor does it celebrate Jinzhen’s cryptographic breakthroughs. Mai’s great accomplishment with Decoded is to not only strip out all patriotism from the spy trade (something that goes back to at least le Carré or even Joseph Conrad) but to strip out emotion all together. What the reader is left with is the facts of the case, transcripts of an interview, and a story that he or she must draw their own conclusions from.

I didn’t always love reading this novel. But Mai’s digressive, even meandering, style slowly worked its way under my skin. Decoded is his first novel translated into English. I hope it’s not the last.

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Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His work can be found in The Rumpus, Kirkus Magazine, Nimrod, The San Antonio Express News, and many others. He’s working on his first novel.

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