The fact that you've probably never heard of Mai Jia says a lot about how few Chinese books are marketed in America. Mai is one of China's most famous living writers, having written several bestsellers and won most major book prizes in China. And now, his debut novel Decoded (FSG) has finally been translated into English. It's a spy thriller the likes of which Americans have most likely never seen before.
The novel tells the story of Rong Jinzhen, a mathematical genius who puts his code breaking talents to work for a top secret Chinese intelligence agency, Unit 701. Possibly autistic and having come from an unusual background, Jinzhen is not your typical secret agent, and Decoded is not your average spy thriller. The story itself starts half a century before its protagonist is even born, chronicling the beginning of the Rong family's affiliation with academia.
Long after the family's scholarly reputation has been cemented and their former wealth has begun to crumble in the waves of social change sweeping through China, an illegitimate baby is born into the family, a baby who will become the most intelligent yet unusual child the colorful family has ever produced.
Decoded has none of the markers associated with Western spy thrillers. Instead of action sequences and gadgets, human insight is what takes center stage here. Without ever spending much time talking about the internal lives of his characters, Mai is able to paint thoroughly realistic characters, from an exiled Austrian professor to a proud but caring university president to the enigmatic Jinzhen himself.
In some ways the book reads like a fable or a legend, in other ways like an obsessive (though thoroughly enjoyable) research project. Mai frames the story as though the author were researching it, including at times long excepts from "interviews" with the people involved. The whole project plays into the nature of code breaking which is at the heart of the novel — just as the main character tries to crack codes around him, so the narrator tries to crack the enigma that is the main character. Yet the narrator's fascination is such that it also becomes something far less analytical, a mystery that both reader and author are trying to penetrate. Even as the author tries to break down and analyze the story, it still becomes larger than life, calling into question the idea that it can ever be truly "decoded" itself.
Decoded is an intricate and careful presented story that will draw readers in and hold their attention right until the end. Part spy thriller, part mystery, part literary fable, the book will hopefully prove only the first of Mai's four novels to reach American shores.