There is a wide range of Japanese fiction available in English thanks to the popularity of authors such as Haruki Murakami, Shuichi Yoshida, Hiromi Kawakami and many more. However, contemporary Chinese fiction translated into English is somewhat less prominent, so I was pretty surprised to come across a brand new copy of ‘Decoded’ by Mai Jia in a National Trust secondhand bookshop recently.
Mia Jia is a pseudonym for Jiang Benhu who spent seventeen years working for the People’s Liberation Army as an intelligence officer. Hugely successful in his native China, ‘Decoded’ is Jia’s debut novel originally published in 2005 and has recently been translated into English by Olivia Milburn. It tells the story of Rong Jinzhen, a prodigy in mathematics born in the early 1930s who is recruited into the National Intelligence service. He is assigned the task of breaking the code PURPLE and is regarded as a hero when he succeeds. However, his life starts to unravel while attempting to crack the fiendishly difficult code BLACK.
After a fairly long-winded description of Rong Jinzhen’s family background, the story really begins when he meets Professor Jan Liseiwicz as a student. It’s a cleverly constructed work of metafiction with the narrator attempting to stitch together Rong Jinzhen’s story through interview transcripts from those who knew him. In spite of the plot being centred around codebreaking and cryptography at the heart of China’s secret services, ‘Decoded’ is not a fast moving spy thriller. It is more of a densely written character study with a less detailed political backdrop than one might expect. However, this absence is itself quite revealing given that the author himself has plenty of personal experience of working for the Chinese military with the content of ‘Decoded’ presumably being pre-approved by state censors.
Consequently, it’s unsurprising that Rong Jinzhen remains a mysterious and elusive character right through to the very end but always an intriguing one. Much like cryptography itself, reading ‘Decoded’ is a complex, sometimes baffling but ultimately rewarding experience.