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UPDATED: August 13, 2014 NO. 13 MARCH 27, 2014
Decrypting Mai Jia
A Bookworm Literary Festival event gives fascinating insight into what makes one of China's top writers tick
By Eric Daly

An official committee was formed, composed of 23 cryptographers who examined the work in detail. Out of 23, 21 returned the verdict that the novel contained nothing potentially damaging. Mai says that this reflected a change in the national psyche, as he claims that 30 years prior, the verdict would have likely been unanimously against publication. Indeed, Mai said many in the committee thanked him for as his novels and the adaptations of same have provided public recognition for the highly secretive work they do and the difficulties such work engenders.

The personal vs. the political

One of the major themes of Mai's talk was his championing of the personal over the political. He deems his categorization as a writer of spy thrillers "unfair" and says his protagonist, Rong, is more akin to British World War II codebreaker Alan Turing than James Bond, someone who "pays the ultimate price" out of fidelity to his country.

When the topic of Edward Snowden is brought up, he describes him as being the opposite of Rong, someone who betrayed national interests, ironically, out of a similar sense of fidelity. He also says that individuals such as Rong and Snowden may never be fully understood from a purely political standpoint.

Although Mai opposes the practice of spy craft, he does so for very unusual reasons. He claims that most governments practice surveillance both domestically and internationally, limited only by the technology at their disposal, and that there is nothing wrong or illegitimate about this per se. His problem is with the crippling emotional and psychological toll such work takes on individuals.

With reference to Decoded not containing any sensitive information, this may be ascribed to Mai's special talent for circumscription and evocation. An oft-repeated writerly maxim is "show, don't tell," and even though the novel concerns the highly technical work of decrypting, it contains not one figure or mathematical diagram. What it does perfectly, however, is to evoke what it feels like to undertake such work.

In its latter two thirds, Decoded lurches from a colorful and tangled account of a family's history into the realm of psychological horror. Decryption is compared to the process of finding one of a limitless number of keys for an infinite number of doors. If one thinks they are on the right path to breaking a cipher, they can spend years and years pursuing a dead end. In short, decryption takes people highly predisposed to obsession and sets them loose in a maze from which they may never break free.

Mai mentions during the talk that the psychological effects of undertaking such work are far more interesting to him than the details of the work itself. Citing his eight months of army training, a length of time he terms "just enough," he states that not having been too close to the process in fact may help the writer, as they don't "lose touch with reality" and can rely on their imagination to help fill in the gaps.

Translation vs. decryption

It is quite apt in this case that the process of literary translation is not entirely unlike decryption. Turning what is to a non-Chinese audience an arbitrary and incomprehensible set of symbols into a living, breathing narrative in another radically different language is no inconsiderable feat. With regard to the novel's prose, Mai modestly attributes its elegance to the "beautiful, classical style" of his translator, Olivia Milburn.

However, it can be said that even the most ingenuous of translators cannot synthesize something that was not already of a sterling quality into something that works as well as Decoded does in a second language. Aside from the freshness of Mai's treatment of his thematic concerns, the reader's eye is drawn to his singular talent for description. Early in the story, when discussing the protagonist's great-great-grandmother's nightmares, he describes how "the flames licking the incense in the brazier often flickered uncertainly with the force of her high-pitched shrieks."

Also apparent is Mai's skill in plotting. Like his compatriots in the mystery genre his later work inhabits, Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier, Mai is able to create initially slow-burning narratives that abruptly kick into a gear so compulsive as to not merely grip the reader but grab them by the throat and throttle them. Decoded is an original, thought-provoking and masterfully crafted work that is sure to whet Western audiences' appetite for further translations of Mai's work and, indeed, those of his contemporary Chinese literary counterparts.

Email us at: liuyunyun@bjreview.com

About Mai Jia

Mai Jia (real name Jiang Benhu), born in 1964, is one of China's noted contemporary writers. He resides in Hangzhou of east China's Zhejiang Province, and is the president of the Zhejiang Writers Association.

He has published a trilogy of espionage novels, the first of which, Decoded, has been published in Spanish, and more recently in English by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Mai personally adapted his second work for Chinese television and wrote the screenplay for The Message, the 2009 film adaptation of the final novel in his trilogy.

In 2008, he was awarded the Mao Dun Literary Prize, the most prestigious accolade of Chinese literature.

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