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Decoded [Hardcover]

Mai Jia
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 1 2014
Decoded tells the story of Rong Jinzhwen, one of the great code-breakers in the world. A semi-autistic mathematical genius, Jinzhen is recruited to the cryptography department of China's secret services, Unit 701, where he is assigned the task of breaking the elusive 'Code Purple'. Jinzhen rises through the ranks to eventually become China's greatest and most celebrated code-breaker; until he makes a mistake. Then begins his descent through the unfathomable darkness of the world of cryptology into madness. "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's the complexity of the characters that is Decoded's enduring pleasure". (London Review of Books). Decoded was an immediate success when it was published in 2002 in China and has become an international bestseller. With the pacing of a literary crime thriller, Mai Jia's masterpiece also combines elements of historical fiction and state espionage. Taking place in the shadowy world of Chinese secret security, where Mai Jia worked for decades, it introduces us to a place that is unfamiliar, intriguing and authentic. And with Rong Jinzhen, it introduces us to a character who is deeply flawed and fragile, yet possessing exceptional intelligence. Decoded is an unforgettable and gripping story of genius, brilliance, insanity and human frailty. "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 Decoded's enduring pleasure". (Times Literary Supplement). "Readers skate the line separating insanity from genius in Mai Jia's riveting tale of cryptographic warfare...A denouement at once heartbreaking and thought-provoking leaves readers pondering the collective sanity of a world shrouding knowledge in enigmas. Gifted translators bring English-speaking readers a Chinese literary treasure". (Booklist). Mai Jia (the pseudonym of Jiang Benhu) is arguably the most successful writer in China today. His books are constant bestsellers, with total sales over three million copies. He became the highest paid author in China last year with his new book, Wind Talk. He has achieved unprecedented success with film adaptation: all of his novels are made - or are being made - into major films or TV series, the screenplays of which are often written by Mai Jia himself. He is hailed as the forerunner of Chinese espionage fiction, and has created a unique genre that combines spycraft, code-breaking, crime, human drama, historical fiction, and metafiction. He has won almost every major award in China, including the highest literary honor - the Mao Dun Award.

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Review

A mixture of Kafka and Agatha Christie ... One of the joys of Decoded is its rich evocation of Chinese culture ... What is this book really about? The clue is in the title. This book is more about Jiang 'decoding' himself than breaking enemy encryption. It is an autobiography operating under the cover of spy fiction - and an utterly fascinating read ... Olivia Milburn's translation is superb -- Edward Wilson The Independent The novel shines in its consideration of the ambiguous difficulties of living with such brilliance ... Decoded is compelling for its tightly wrought aphorisms, elegantly turned in Olivia Milburn's translation ... An engaging and highly unusual read Sunday Independent FINALLY, a great Chinese novel ... This strange, twisting tale is told in fizzy, vivid and often beautiful prose. It is an absolute joy to read Economist 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's the complexity of the characters that is Decoded's enduring pleasure London Review of Books Strongly recalls One Hundred Years of Solitude, only this time with the tapestry stitched in silk Sunday Business Post The book's subtle ambiguity is extended to its own conclusion, the decoding of which the reader is compelled to take part in. As for the shrewd, poetic, baffled figure at the heart of this maze, Rong Jinzhen comes to perceive the yin and yang of a cosmic order offering not much consolation Wall Street Journal Subtle and psychologically focused ... the central story is a gripping one ... it leaves you eager to read more of his work -- Alexander Larman The Observer

About the Author

Mai Jia (the pseudonym of Jiang Benhu) is arguably the most successful writer in China today. His books are constant bestsellers, with total sales over three million copies. He is hailed as the forerunner of Chinese espionage fiction, and has created a unique genre that combines spycraft, code-breaking, crime, human drama, historical fiction, and metafiction. He has won almost every major award in China, including the highest literary honor - the Mao Dun Award.

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars China unique spy story. July 11 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Serious writing from China, a real psychological thriller in the heart of modern China. Excellently rendered in English.
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By Len TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
For some reason when I ordered this book I thought it was about those dudes from the NSA and CSES who monitor our emails and the internet and try to break into similar systems used by the governments and companies of other countries. But no, this is about Jinzhen, a genius cryptographer working for the Chinese government back in the 1950s. He suffers from aspergers and is the orphan son of a math genius who was the daughter of a math genius who was the son of one in a thousand years math genius. Without a computer capable of millions of calculations per second, Jinzhen has only his brain to unravel a seemingly impossible enemy code. The novel is very Kafkaesque with its detachment from the world outside cryptographer perhaps mirroring Jinzhen’s own separation from the people around him. Despite my initial disappointment, I found the novel both entertaining and an interesting insight into the Chinese culture.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  92 reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Family history, mathematical genius -- and espionage Feb. 20 2014
By S. McGee - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This evolves into a compelling and intelligent thriller -- eventually. The key word here being "eventually", as a reader who's expecting Daniel Silva-like thrills and chills right out of the gate will be bemused, bewildered and frustrated. Because before we ever watch mathematical genius Rong Jinzhen wrestle with the mysteries of cryptography in a secret Chinese department devoted to the subject, we follow the story of his great-uncle, his grandmother, his father, and his own isolated early childhood. All of those in his line of descent in the Rong family, it seems, are born with extraordinarily large heads: the question is whether that signifies extraordinary ability (as with his grandmother) or extraordinary devilry (as with his father). His family members want nothing whatsoever to do with Jinzhen, so in the years leading up to the Communist victory of 1949, he is raised in a remote corner of his family's large compound, neglected and ignored by everyone except the Western scholar whose interpretation of a matriarch's dream turned out to be the catalyst for the foundation of a new university and China's top school of mathematics. To which Jinzhen, of course, finds his way...

By that point, if you can keep an open mind and trust that the author is leading you somewhere interesting, you're engrossed in Jinzhen's unusual personality and unusual -- astonishing -- abilities. I certainly was, and I felt for him when the authorities -- viewing his mind as merely a tool rather than as part of a person -- put him to work on an apparently unbreakable code in a remote, isolated location. The code is one enemy, but could a friend and mentor be another? Yes, there's suspense, but not in the sense of an action movie. To read and relish this novel, you need to put aside perceptions of what a suspense novel "should" be, and focus instead on this particular tale, as told by this particular novelist.

Admittedly, the mathematical details here made my head spin. But the core story of Jinzhen's troubled past and troubled present was moving and the mystery -- not just the code but the personality of Jinzhen -- was gripping. At its heart, this seemed to me the tale of decoding a complex genius, rather than something as banal as unbreakable codes.

Definitely worth reading for those prepared to deal with the unconventional narrative style, and wait for the author to make his revelations...
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, enigmatic & weirdly whimsical Jan. 4 2014
By Patto - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The narrative starts with a fairy-tale-like account of the protagonist's famous family, in which genius and degeneracy appear in different generations. Mathematical genius, however, prevails in Rong Jinzehn, the illegitimate son of a murderer. Jinzehn is nothing like other people – cold, uncommunicative, crude, obsessive, naive. His unlovable personality is oddly lovable.

The fairy tale turns into a spy story when Jinzehn is abruptly recruited by a top-secret intelligence agency and whisked off to a distant and tightly guarded compound. There he becomes a cryptologist and is assigned a seemly impossible code to break.

But Decoded is as much a psychological novel as a tale of espionage. Mai Jia is portraying a man waging a war of the mind and endangering his own mind in the process. The villain of the piece is not some enemy agent but rather cryptology itself. Ciphers are seen as the work of the devil – an exercise of craftiness fed by the evil of humankind and its sinister intent.

This novel is a metaphysical feast of ideas. It plays with the mysteries of mathematics, the relationship of genius and madness, the treacherous underbelly of patriotism and friendship, the nature of God, the power of deceit, the power of dreams...

The narrative structure of the novel is brilliant – contrived to convince the reader that this is a true account, not a mere work of fiction. It's impossible not to believe in the cryptographer and his heartbreaking experiences.

I read that it took Mai Jia ten years to write this book, and that it once ran over a million words. This doesn't surprise me. I have never encountered a more ambitious novel. Mai Jia delves into the elusive working of the mind with poetic abandon, all the while crafting a very good tale. There's even a love story, of sorts, among all the other enigmatic happenings.

Decoded is itself like a code, concealing and revealing the secrets of humanity and society. I loved it.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Truly Disappointing May 18 2014
By Ravenmaster - Published on Amazon.com
I am an avid reader of translated Chinese fiction and a long-time resident of China. Mai Jia is well thought of here, and many of my friends are devotees of his work. After reading this novel and discussing it with my friends who have read it in Chinese, it became clear to me that many of the problems that I have with the work are due to the translation - not so much the effort of translating the words, but in translating the nuances of meaning. The Chinese language and English are vastly different in terms of how things are expressed, particularly emotions. In addition, what Chinese people like in a novel, both in terms of content and style is quite different. This makes it challenging for a translator who is trying to keep things true to the original author, but still provide something interesting and readable for the non-Chinese reader. Another exacerbating factor lies in the fact that there are very few people translating Chinese that are fiction writers, and none that I'm aware of that are "good" fiction writers. So, you get technical translations by writers of non-fiction trying to translate literary fiction. Just doesn't work very well in my experience.

That said, the novel falls apart in the last Part of the book. The "narrator" attempts to explain this is intended with a long navel-gazing excerpt that looks wedged in with a crowbar. I understand the author's intent, but he simply doesn't pull it off and there are so many digressions that it gets intensely boring. As to the notion that this last part is like a cipher itself--don't buy it. All of the literary devices the author "dared" to use fall flat. Frankly, I think some of the reviewers that raved about this novel before it was actually released didn't read it completely. I think they skimmed parts of it, particularly toward the end. I saved a number of the reviews in Evernote and went back and read them after I finished, and I am even more convinced that some of them didn't read the novel completely.

The author also attempts to excuse the lack of a coherent storyline as being something that is not a big deal for Chinese readers (his intended audience). I don't buy it. Plenty of Chinese readers like translated foreign novels that have good stories. As for Chinese works, Chinese readers can only read what is written. Many Chinese writers have a habit of not being very good storytellers--I don't know whether this is merely following tradition or the belief that readers don't care about coherent plot, or some inherent problem with being able to construct a good storyline. I suspect that the real problem has to do with censorship. Writers end up having to use symbolism or work their way in circles just to get around the censors.

I think the book would have been better as a novelette, frankly. Much of the backstory in the beginning was, though interesting, irrelevant. There was far too much repetition--to the extent that I think the book could have been dropped by 10% of its size just to weed out the redundancy. There were lots of failures in translation, not so much from a technical aspect, but a failure to adapt Chinese style writing into English - which relates to my point above about most translators of Chinese fiction not being good fiction writers. Also, the translator has a penchant for using English cliches that don't reflect the meaning in Chinese, and that are simply just bad writing. Also, there were repetitive phrases that tended to drive me to distraction, the most needling one was "To be be honest...." about a hundred times. That's just bad editing. Lastly, to suggest this is a spy "thriller" is ludicrous. The word "thriller" connotes something fast paced that keeps you on the edge of your seat. This is not that kind of novel. It's ponderously slow...like a plodding elephant slow. It gets worse about 3/4 of the way through, and the only reason I continued reading is because I had invested time into it and I have a technical interest in translated Chinese novels. I'm glad I read it, but it doesn't do Mai Jia justice when translated into English, and I was disappointed in the end with the results.

Other people have done a good job of describing characterization in the novel. I don't think this was done particularly well, but in my experience, that's a failure of Chinese literature in general that loses even more in translation. I can't imagine anyone reading this novel and having any feelings for the main character at all, other than, perhaps, a curiosity of descent into madness. And there really are no other characters that get described enough for you to care about them. Point being, unless you are curious about descent into madness (and there are tons of books that deal with this in a much better way than this one), then don't bother reading it you have a need to feel anything other than "meh" for any of the characters. With regard to the descent into madness aspect itself, I think that failed completely. Just came off as silly and irritating to me--though it evidently worked in Chinese, from what my friends tell me. I know what the author was trying to do, but it just made me scratch my head and yawn and roll my eyes and bemoan my frustration with how difficult it is to find a Chinese novel translated into English that really works.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Start But the Novel Disappoints April 24 2014
By G. Miki Hayden - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I enjoyed and was touched by about the first third of the novel, the background to the so-called protagonist whose beginning in life was difficult to say the least. But for those wanting to read a Chinese thriller involving its secret, code-breaking agencies, this really isn't it. The structure fails--in my Western view--from beginning to end. I accepted the opening because, after all, not everything has to be the same as the mainstream American publishers insist on these days, and as I said, I was moved by the story of a brilliant young man with emotional (perhaps hardwired) problems. But once the supposed spy story gets underway, the novel flops. If you want a Chinese mystery thriller, read Qiu Xiaolong--his Death of a Red Heroine, or others.

In addition to being disappointed by the novel itself, I was horrified by the editing. In fact, it's obvious that the translators, once they were finished, weren't edited, and moreover, the book wasn't edited for the American publication. I could pick up any page and point to errors.

I just can't recommend this novel as either a window into Chinese espionage or as a thriller.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Decoded April 1 2014
By S Riaz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Before you begin this book – the author’s 2005 debut and his first book to be translated in the West – you will have to put aside every preconception you have about spy novels. Although it is about a mathematical genius who is involved in breaking codes, it takes an awfully long time to reach that part of the story. Indeed, the first part of the book is involved mainly with the family history of the main character and most novels do not usually go into such detail. Mai Jia is a pseudonym for Jiang Benhu, who spent seventeen years in the People’s Liberation Army as an intelligence officer and is, therefore, perfectly placed to relate the story of his character – Rong Jinzhen (nicknamed Zhendi) – from his inauspicious birth to his University career and through to his recruitment at a research facility by the elusive intelligence officer, Zheng the Gimp. Rong Zinzhen is shown with almost autistic traits and we hear often from other characters about their reactions to him and other members of his family (genealogy certainly figures largely in this book), but our information is often through letters and diaries and, therefore, we have a distance from the action. In a way, we are almost with the narrator, discovering information alongside him, as he follows Rong Jinzhen’s path.

Once Rong Jinzhen is recruited, he becomes a cryptographer, involved in breaking a legendary code called Purple. This success causes him to become a Revolutionary Hero, but his attention then turns to the even greater matter of the code called Black. Although this is labelled a spy thriller, it is not in the usual form that you would expect from Le Carre, for instance. However, if you approach this with an open mind, you will find it a strangely compelling read. There is a reason why Mai Jia is such an enormous success in China – a bestselling author who has won China’s highest literary honour, and has had immense success. Before long, you find yourself totally immersed in the world and characters that have been created. His next novel is “In the Dark” and I hope that it will also be translated and appear in English soon.
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