Mai Jia has published three novels and a novella in his native China and has won several awards for them. But Decoded (2002) marks the first time his work has been published in English, and based on this one, we can only hope the rest of his work isn’t far behind. Some readers may be turned off by the math, or by the healthy doses of Chinese folklore and history, but for many others, those sections will be the attraction.
JIA, Mai. Decoded. tr. from Chinese by Olivia Milburn. 320p. Farrar. Feb. 2014. Tr $26. ISBN 9780374135805.
The world of espionage brings to mind TV shows like “Alias” or the books of John le Carré, but the reality is usually much more mundane. Mai Jia, a former member of the Chinese intelligence community, exposes that mundanity and illuminates the world of the people who work at those jobs in his new novel. The bigger story is that of a Chinese unit, Unit 701, a sort-of Bletchley Park area where workers attempt to decode information encrypted by China’s enemies. One of those workers is Rong Jinzhen, scion of a family famous for its mathematical ability—so famous that in the 1870s they founded a math academy that eventually became N University. Jinzhen is something of an outcast in the family and is first raised by Mr. Auslander and then mentored by Jan Liseiwicz, along the way developing mathematical abilities that surpass even those of his family. After the revolution, Jinzhen is “recruited” to help decrypt the infamous PURPLE code; it is his position within that community that allows him to protect his family during Mao’s cultural revolution. His story ends with a breakdown, caused by the loss of his precious decryption notebook and briefcase, and disgrace. There is a lot of math here, but even those whose interests don’t lie in that direction will find its inclusion bearable. What differentiates this story from others is the sweep of Chinese history and life that readers get as Jinzhen’s story unfolds, as well as the commentary about the strains on an interior life so intensely focused.—Laura Pearle, Miss Porter’s School, Farmington, CT