Fiction decoded

Published on February 15th, 2014


Decoded by Mai Jia

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Blurb: A semi-autistic mathematical genius, Jinzhen is recruited to the cryptography department of China’s secret services, Unit 701, where he is assigned the task of breaking the elusive ‘Code Purple’. Jinzhen rises through the ranks to eventually become China’s greatest and most celebrated code-breaker; until he makes a mistake. Then begins his descent through the unfathomable darkness of the world of cryptology into madness. (Allen Lane, February 2014)

Tash Aw, The Telegraph

“Secrets, in the form of both mysterious plot lines and unresolved personal histories, abound in Mai Jia’s Decoded, which isn’t surprising, given that it is a novel about the intricacies of cryptography, set largely in the chaos of the decades leading to the Cultural Revolution. But it isn’t just the dense, twisting story that creates this sense of opacity and bewilderment, nor the sprawling cast of wonderfully bizarre characters. There is a determination to unsettle the reader, an uneasiness about settling on one focused point of view, almost as if the narrative style is attempting to replicate the complexities of code breaking that lie at the heart of the novel.”

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Alexander Larman, The Observer

“It’s misleading to expect this novel to be a tense codebreaking thriller in the mould of, say, Robert Harris’s Enigma. Instead, it’s a much more subtle and psychologically focused read that prefers to look askance at 20th-century Chinese history, and offers wry comparisons with present-day China.”

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Edward Wilson, The Independent

“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 … 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.”

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Megan Walsh, The Times

“Mai Jia’s intelligence background comes through not in his ability to plot a nailbiter, but in his ability to plunge into the mystery, and ultimate tragedy, of someone stripped of their non-professional existence: “The majority of geniuses have been buried within the borders of cryptography . . . all that we have left are the ciphers.””

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David Evans, The Financial Times

“Mai’s interest seems, rather, to lie in the impenetrability of the mind, and the difficulties of getting at the truth by way of literature. Mai has cited the influence of writers such as Borges and Nabokov – and there are shades of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” in his pitiable, inscrutable protagonist. Ultimately, however, Decoded seems an entirely original work – a mix of spy thriller, historical saga and mathematical puzzle that somehow coheres into a powerful whole.”

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Isabel Hilton, The Guardian

“The narrative arc of the book is the author’s own quest for the truth about the secret lives of Jinzhen and Liesewicz, against a backdrop of state secrecy, deepening antagonism between the US and China, and the tightening grip of the communist state on the lives of its citizens. The narrator crisscrosses China, tracking down key witnesses, to reconstruct Jinzhen’s life, and part of the narrative is told in the accounts of those who knew him. The novel is also, in its way, an exercise in ambiguity and coded references, and can be read as a lightly coded allegory of the troubled relationship of the citizen with an all‑powerful state.”

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The Independent on Sunday

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.”

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