Mai Jia. Decoded. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2014 (translated from Chinese by Allen Lane; originally published in Chinese 2002). Downloaded as Hachette digital for Kindle.
There’s a lot to like about this combination of modern Western fiction with Chinese philosophy, history and politics. The author uses self-consciousness, multiple endings, and other strategies familiar from American and British fiction and film to make his psychological thriller accessible and exciting, while at the same time delivering a historical 1950s Communist Chinese setting and a plot that carries (for a Western reader) traditional Chinese inscrutability.
An academic family tree culminates in Rong Jinzhen, whose head is so big as an infant that his mother dies in childbirth. He develops into an isolative bookish kid who turns out to be the most brilliant mathematician the region has ever seen. As a young man he is taken by a government agent to an espionage facility where top-secret activity focuses on code-cracking. Jinzhen proves to be even better at decoding than he was at theoretical math, and quickly rises to the top of his new involuntary trade. But the combination of his nearly unique abilities and the terrible importance of the work he is doing causes catastrophic trouble and leads to personal tragedy.
The Chinese concept of luck is discussed and it’s interesting that the reader is presumed to be familiar with it. Luck is of course seen to be fixed in some spiritual systematic way and subject to prediction and divining, contrary to the Western idea that luck is random and unpredictable. The author tells us:
Luck is crafty: you cannot see it, you cannot touch it, nor can you say for sure what it is. You cannot understand it, nor does it wait for you. If you pray for it, it will not come. luck is sublime and mysterious, perhaps the most mysterious thing in this world.
The convoluted plot line, somewhat mysterious, brilliant, morally ambivalent and introverted characters, and preoccupation with spycraft and codes fills the story with a sense of secrets within secrets. I couldn’t avoid at certain points imagining an old-fashioned Western cartoon concept of China. GONG! A golden-robed long-haired elderly man with a wispy moustache appears in a puff of smoke: the great secret-holder. He confuses and he enlightens. He is what he seems but also much more and much less. Etcetera.
(I was also reminded of The Chinese Nightingale, a Vachel Lindsay poem I read in high school. Deep in San Francisco chinatown we find Chang, a simple Chinese laundryman who has magical visions and significance far beyond his place in an alien society, ironing away in his basement at night.)
Anyway, there is more than enough intrigue to hold my interest as PLOT ALERT Jinzhen eventually loses his mind through, first, getting just to the brink of deciphering the ultimate enemy code, but missing its final and apparently most elusive element which is hidden by being in plain view, only to have a much less astute colleague benefit from his brilliant work by picking up that last element like something lying on the sidewalk in front of him.
And second, having his critically secret notebook stolen by a simple thief. END PLOT ALERT.
I was reminded a bit of the eponymous work of art in David Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so obviously the key to something terribly significant that it’s the name of the book, but impossibly hidden. We get at the end of Decoded a quotation from notes made by Jinzhen, but not from his brilliant mathematical notebooks which are locked in an impenetrable safe. The one rendered instead is, we are told, possibly true and possibly not, and in any case optional reading. It is for us, we are also told, as though the real notebooks like the film in Infinite Jest don’t really exist. And the genius Jinzhen doesn’t either. Sure, he’s apparently sitting there in his bathrobe in a nursing home writing the cryptic poetic stream of consciousness we’re reading, but the truth is he’s gone.
That stream of consciousness is no Ulysses or even Book of Memories, but it gestures in a similar very European-American direction. And also strikes a frighteningly familiar chord for anyone familiar with end-stage dementia.
Mai Jia looks like the new and future China: a mythical-style interpreter of all the tangled enfolding of an ancient spiritual and imperial past, buried under fifty million corpses and the concrete brutality of the People’s Republic, now slowly finding its subsuming understanding of the racy sophisticated American century, gone into history with a gong and a puff of smoke like Rong Jinzhen’s superhuman genius. 8.8/8.1, subject to translation.