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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Mai Jia

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To purchase Decoded

Title: Decoded
Author: Mai Jia
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 315 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Decoded - US
Decoded - UK
Decoded - Canada
Decoded - India
  • Chinese title: 解密
  • Translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne

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Our Assessment:

B : odd but reasonably compelling narrative, an interesting picture of family and state in (for the most part) Maoist China

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A+ 22/3/2014 .
Financial Times . 28/3/2014 David Evans
The Guardian B 4/4/2014 Isabel Hilton
The Independent . 14/2/2014 Edward Wilson
Independent on Sunday . 26/1/2014 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/5/2014 Perry Link
The Observer . 1/2/2014 Alexander Larman
Publishers Weekly . 16/12/2013 .
The Telegraph . 5/3/2014 Tash Aw
The Times . 15/3/2014 Megan Walsh
TLS . 22/1/2014 Frances Wood

  From the Reviews:
  • "Finally, a great Chinese novel. (...) It stands out among Chinese novels for its pace, liveliness and the sheer novelty of the tale it tells. It grips from the first page. (...) This strange, twisting tale is told in fizzy, vivid and often beautiful prose. (...) It is an absolute joy to read." - The Economist

  • "Decoded seems an entirely original work -- a mix of spy thriller, historical saga and mathematical puzzle that somehow coheres into a powerful whole." - David Evans, Financial Times

  • "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. It is also deft in its exploration of the world of mathematics and of cryptography" - Isabel Hilton, The Guardian

  • "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. (...) Olivia Milburnís translation is superb example of how to find apt English equivalents (...) without losing the flavour of the original Mandarin." - Edward Wilson, The Independent

  • "Decodedís 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 Jinzhenís character translates to the text more broadly." - Independent on Sunday

  • "Mai Jiaís novel shows us very little actual cryptography or spy work. Its consuming interest -- and it truly is a page turner -- comes from its psychological study of Rong Jinzhen as well as its gripping plot, otherworldly aura and flamboyant detail. (...) Near its end, Decoded addresses some profound questions about the human condition. There is even a mention of God. Here, though, the novel falls short of the best writing in modern China. Readable and enjoyable as it is, Decoded cannot compare in moral profundity to the short fiction of Lu Xun, the novellas of Eileen Chang or, more recently, the poetry of Liu Xiaobo." - Perry Link, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Mai's style of storytelling, involving lengthy and sometimes apparently irrelevant portions of first-person narration from other characters in the form of diaries or interviews, can be taxing at times, but nonetheless the central story is a gripping one, offering a protagonist who is never exactly sympathetic but whose struggles in service of an unknown and unknowable goal seem all too clearly an echo of what his fellow countrymen faced during the postwar era. If nothing else, it leaves you eager to read more of his work." - Alexander Larman, The Observer

  • "Maiís careful attention to pacing and the folklore-inspired narration make for a fascinating story, neatly interwoven with complex mathematical theory." - Publishers Weekly

  • "In many ways, the non-thriller elements of the novel are more important in understanding Mai Jiaís work than the command of the technical details of code breaking. In painting a portrait of pre-Revolution China with its links to scholarship, Mitteleuropean intellectuals and the great universities of the West, the novel subtly reclaims Chinaís sense of its place in world history pre-1949." - Tash Aw, The Telegraph

  • "Decoded is a subtle and complex exploration of cryptography, politics, dreams and their significance. (...) There is much of interest in this book, from the strange, superstitious beginning to the gradual decline of the Rong family as the twentieth century progresses. (...) But, in the end, it is the complexity of the characters that is Decodedís enduring pleasure." - Frances Wood, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Decoded is presented as a documentary story, of sorts, the narrator providing a chronological account of events that includes interview-transcripts with some of those involved in the story, as well as some description of his encounters with these principals and how he came to find much of the information he provides ("I spent every holiday for two years on the railways of southern China, travelling the country to interview the fifty-one middle-aged or elderly eyewitnesses to these events").
       The focus of the novel is the man eventually called Rong Jinzhen, a mathematical genius who is enlisted by the state to work in the cryptography section at the top secret Special Unit 701. But the novel begins with his 19th-century forebears, and while Rong Jinzhen's cryptographing days end in 1970, the novel continues to the near-present, as the author describes looking into the man's story and eventually writing this book.
       The Rong family founded Lillie's Academy of Mathematics in "the provincial capital, C City", and family-members continued to be involved in running it and teaching there when it became: "the famous N University". It is Young Lillie, who eventually runs the university, who takes in the boy known as Duckling -- a distant relative -- and he is raised along with Young Lillie's daughter (talented in her own right -- and confusingly known to all as 'Master Rong'). Jinzhen is an odd boy, but he is clearly gifted, and his mathematical talents are pretty obvious. Among those who recognize them is Jan Liseiwicz, a visiting scholar at N University who winds up stuck in China longer than expected due to world events (and eventually marries a Chinese woman). He becomes Jinzhen's mentor -- and prods him to go into the burgeoning field of Artificial Intelligence. Eventually Liseiwicz also tries to help him further his studies abroad, but Jinzhen is unable to take advantage of that opportunity.
       Young Lillie sets up a research facility, and Jinzhen is the star there -- but he's soon recruited by the state and starts a new life at the ultra-secret Special Unit 701 compound. He vanishes from sight, and even his family have little idea where he is -- except that they figure out soon that he has become an important and highly-valued figure.
       It takes a while for those at 701 to appreciate Jinzhen's abilities, because he remains an odd duck, but, as Director Zheng attests:

     The fact is that Rong Jinzhen was a genius -- there were many things about him that an ordinary person could simply not understand. He could go for months, maybe as long as a year, without saying a word -- it really didn't seem to bother him -- but when he finally did open his mouth, he would say something that quite possibly was more important than everything you have said in your entire life put together. Whatever he did, it seemed as though he did not care about the process at all, the only thing that mattered was the results.
       And Jinzhen did get code-breaking results -- only to eventually be broken himself.
       Mai's documentary approach -- not taking many of the liberties a novelist might in fleshing out his character or filling in details -- gives the story a somewhat journalistic-feel -- it reads, in part, like a magazine profile. At times, Mai certainly gets too present and personal ("This part of the story will make people feel both inspired and sorrowful" ...). Overall, however, it works quite well -- complete with the rounding off of the story with the where-are-they-now bits, as well as what amounts to an appendix consisting of 'Rong Jinzhen's Notebook' (complete with some commentary).
       The cryptography, secret unit, and some surprising international intrigue (albeit annoyingly also involving countries like "X" and "Y", even as others are named ...), as well as Chinese turmoil in these times, make for some decent excitement -- though one couldn't really call Decoded a thriller. But in its glimpses of complicated family life, as well as university and state bureaucracies, it offers some interesting insights. Its heavy dose of Chinese values and nationalism -- family- and party-duties taken very seriously -- gives it a somewhat old-fashioned feel too (and on the whole it reads closer to a Soviet thriller of 1970s vintage than contemporary fiction). Still, Mai's somewhat unusual presentation livens up the story, too, and though the story has a bit of an odd arc to it, the novel remains reasonably interesting all along.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 January 2014

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Decoded: Reviews: Mai Jia: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Mai Jia (麦家; actually: 蒋本浒) was born in 1964.

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