Exploration of genius
Over the past few months I’ve noticed that an increasing number of the books I review in this column are translations. This is partially due to my own unappeasable curiosity about the rich and varied stories of the diverse inhabitants of this planet, but also because high quality translations are increasingly available.
I put this down to the fact that in this interconnected world publishers have easy access to sales figures for books published in other languages and other lands. It’s a low-risk calculation for them to bank on what has been a bestseller in one country becoming a bestseller in another.
For example, here in Malaysia we see publishers like Fixi Verso translating bestselling books from safe-bet writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman into the national language, but globally we see an increasing number of translations from “foreign” languages into English.
Mai Jia, whose real name is Jiang Benhuis, as the blurb on the inside cover informs the reader, is possibly one of the most famous novelists you’ve never heard of. His books sell millions in his native China where they have been adapted into films and television series, but he is almost unknown outside his home country.
Some people refer to him as the Chinese Dan Brown – presumably the comparison is made on the basis of his sales, because his writing is much richer and nuanced and more literary in style. Mai Jia himself prefers to compare his writing to a blend of Kafka and Agatha Christie, which might or might not give the reader some sort of an idea what to expect.
Decoded is Mai Jia’s first novel. Olivia Milburn has made a splendid and very readable translation. Originally published in China in 2005, it is Mai Jia’s first book to be available in English.
A precocious youth, Mai Jia was only 17 when he joined a top-secret section of the People’s Liberation Army, and in one of the uncanny symmetries of life, he stayed in the PLA for another 17 years. Much of the inspiration for his books comes from that period spent in the intelligence community.
Decoded is the story of a slightly autistic but brilliant young mathematical autodidact named Rong who, just like Mai Jia, gets recruited into a top secret section of the People’s Liberation Army at a young age. Set in a period before number crunching computers, Rong’s task is to crack codes. He dedicates himself single-mindedly to the task, performing his duty to the country, forsaking his original intention, which was to work with his mentor on the development of artificial intelligence.
The book starts off very spiritedly with some genealogical back story on Rong’s ancestors, who are personable and charismatic characters that one would happily read about, but as soon as the story gets to Rong the author pulls back.
Apart from a very brief section near the end we only ever see Rong from a distance. Rong is so introverted that he is capable of going months, and sometimes years, without saying a word to another human being.
The story is told as if it was a piece of investigative journalism, where the narrator is trying to find out all he can about this mysterious character. The protagonist is only ever seen through other’s eyes and the narrator learns about him second hand, except for one brief encounter much later in Rong’s life. There are times that this journalistic effect is so real that the reader starts to wonder if this really is a novel or whether it is actually an authentic biography.
Decoded is an intelligent book that deftly skirts around the history of the time. Though literary, Mai Jia is a mainstream author, and studiously avoids getting bogged down in anything resembling politics. There is a moment early on where the reader might worry about getting bored with the mathematical elements of the story, but these are just used to establish character and are very quickly left behind to focus on the story in itself.
With Rong being so distant and hermetic it is difficult to truly empathise with him as a character. Perhaps the author’s intention is for the reader to mirror Rong’s own anti-social belligerence. Ultimately, it is the writing that keeps one reading and Mai Jia is very astute in his exploration of the fragility of genius.
Given his commercial viability, doubtlessly more of Mai Jia’s work will be translated in the future. I will certainly be looking forward to read more from him.