Decoded by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne
The layers here are astonishing, revealed through the filtered lens of an unnamed narrator who gathers the shared experiences, memories, and words about an enigmatic, brilliant man who has lost his sanity by the time the narrator’s research begins. The subject is Rong Jinzhen – orphan, mathematical genius, unparalleled code breaker, national hero. In spite of the narrative spotlight, he is allowed a mere two instances to speak for himself: in a message written in his own blood professing lifelong devotion to his adoptive mother, and in a lost-then-found blue notebook that can only be partially divulged as a redacted afterthought.
The Rong family’s fortune accumulated through salt, until a peripatetic member of the seventh generation becomes “the first person … to break from their mercantile heritage and become an academic.” After an education overseas, he founded what would become “the famous N University.” The most illustrious of the eighth Rong generation is an extraordinary woman who assisted the Wright brothers take to the sky, but childbirth takes her life. Her genius is reborn in her illegitimate grandson Jinzhen.
The narrator spends “two years on the railways of southern China, travelling the country to interview the fifty-one middle-aged or elderly eyewitnesses to these events” that comprise Jinzhen’s major life events: his birth, his early years as “Duckling,” his adoption by relatives, his university life as a teenage prodigy, his sudden induction into Unit 701 – the most elite division of code-breakers for China’s secret service – and what follows in the decades hence.
As Jinzhen attempts to decipher the impossible, the anonymous narrator works assiduously to graft together his subject through multiple voices with varying degrees of reliability. The Rashomon-esque story is filled with countless phrases meant to reassure: “to tell you the truth,” “to put it another way,” “in other words,” and yet that truth remains elusive throughout. Regardless of all who weigh in with scattered glimpses of family, mentorship, marriage, and career, Jinzhen’s own personal ‘codes’ remain incomplete and unknowable.
First published in 2002, Decoded was Mai Jia’s first novel; since its debut, Mai has catapulted into top-selling stardom in his native China, including winning his country’s top honor, the Mao Dun Literature Prize. He writes seemingly what he knows, having spent almost two decades as a soldier and possible spy in China’s “intelligence services,” according to his publisher bio. Decoded marks Mai’s arrival Stateside in translation; smart, compelling, exceptional as it proves to be, it should ensure more of his titles will be western-bound.
Tidbit: Not wanting to sully the novel itself, I’m adding this warning here: Choose the page. Why does a novel set in China, populated mostly by Chinese characters, need to be narrated in fake-Chinese-inflected English? The implication is that the characters are incapable of fluently speaking their own language. Really?! Because it’s a Chinese novel-in-translation that needs to be slapped with spurious exotica to sell it stuck in the ears? Narrator Ryan Gesell (an L.A. native clearly not of Asian descent) uses a similarly fabricated accent in Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost, giving U.S.-born Asian American characters a ching-chong flair. Is this aural yellowfacing offensive to anyone else?
Published: 2002 (China), 2014 (United States)