Decoded is a spy novel that largely ignores the conventions of Western spy thrillers. There is little violence and no clever gadgets other than the human brain. Whereas Bond and spy heroes of similar ilk spring fully formed onto the page, the first third of Decoded is a family history of the book’s protagonist, Rong Jinzhen, that goes back nine generations. The genealogy weaves together tragedy and comedy. The Rongs are wealthy salt merchants and mathematical geniuses noted for their large heads. Those heads are often too big for the birth canal and Jinzhen’s grandmother dies in labour. The son survives and is nicknamed Killer – and lives up to his name when he in turn fatally impregnates a woman who dies giving birth to the main character. The rise of Jinzhen, from an orphan cruelly nicknamed the Grim Reaper, to a celebrity code-breaker is more Dickens than Fleming.
In a brief introduction, the author describes his style as a mixture of Kafka and Agatha Christie. Games of deduction set in a dreamlike world are certainly present, but so is meta-fiction. Decoded is a book about writing a book. The lonely struggle of Jinzhen to break code PURPLE reflects the isolated labour of a novelist – as does his endless reading, ‘...studying, learning the things that other people have already done.’ Indeed, the personality and life style of Jinzhen – ‘unstable’, ‘dangerously alienated’, ‘living alone, working alone’– are not unknown in the literary world.
One of the joys of Decoded is its rich evocation of Chinese culture from the importance of dream interpretation – an art not unlike the decrypting of encoded secrets – to pear blossom tinctures as a cure for constipation. But it also deals with the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and the unquestioning need for loyalty to the state. Unit 701 is an Orwellian GCHQ where you: ‘Don’t ask forbidden questions, don’t discuss forbidden topics...’
Mai Jia is a pseudonym. The author is Jiang Benhu who served for seventeen years in the People’s Liberation Army as an intelligence officer. Jiang comes from what the Red Guards used to call a ‘bad background’. His grandparents include rightists, landlords and Christians – not the ideal CV for a PLA officer. What is this book really about? The clue is in the title. This book is more about Jiang ‘decoding’ himself than breaking enemy encryption. It is an autobiography operating under the cover of spy fiction – and an utterly fascinating read.
Olivia Milburn’s translation is superb example of how to find apt English equivalents – ‘he larded his speech with words that sounded like the chirping of a bird’ – without losing the flavour of the original Mandarin.