Book review: "Decoded" by Mai Jia (Trs by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne)

China in their hand

Decoded is the first opportunity for English readers to experience the work of Mai Jia, a bestselling novelist in his native China where he is also known through television and film adaptations of his books. Described as a forerunner of Chinese espionage fiction, Mai Jia apparently draws from his experiences rubbing shoulders with cryptologists and spies during a 17-year stint in the People’s Liberation Army intelligence unit. He also worked as a military propagandist before devoting himself to more transparent fiction.

Decoded is more a novel about spies than a traditional spy novel. It recalls Rong Jinzhen, a revered figure in China for his work deciphering its enemies’ military codes. The narrator, investigating the life of this national hero through interviews with his associates, follows the orphan through his early years of squalor to his time as a child prodigy at university before being half-plucked, half-abducted to join the secret services in the mysterious Unit 701.

Jinzhen is unconventional: reclusive, cerebral, possibly autistic but definitely a genius. The novel shines in its consideration of the ambiguous difficulties of living with such brilliance. Jinzhen’s personal journey is less interesting than what the narrator learns along the way about the metaphysical nature of the challenges posed by code breaking. Decoded is compelling for its tightly wrought aphorisms, elegantly turned in Olivia Milburn’s translation. As one character typically asserts: “An interesting but wrong theory is always better than a boring but perfect proof”.

The novel also gives a fleeting glimpse of both 20th-century China and the shadowy world of its security services. Decoded’s surreal, occasionally oneiric, tone prevents the reader – and maybe the censor – associating too closely with real life, but does sketch an intriguing picture of the intelligence underground.

Decoded is an engaging and highly unusual read, but the opacity of Jinzhen’s character translates to the text more broadly. Though the novel repeatedly hints towards some revelation or hidden truths, such a pay-off never comes. It is unclear if there is a subtle satire or complex allegory at work, so the novel promises slightly more than it delivers. Decoded, perhaps, is itself best read as a complex cipher, one that just eludes complete decryption.