Cryptography and Cryptographers

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Clever is as clever does, and Mai Jia’s novel, Decoded, is clever as hell.  Actually, it seems like several novels.  The opening chapters are mostly family saga, dynasty, over decades and decades, with comic flourishes equal to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.  There are characters with names such as the “human abacus” and “killer head,” connected—as will be true of the novel as a whole—to mathematics and those who understand mathematics and those who don’t.  Then, the novel becomes more serious, with tricks involving unidentified narrative voices and even “the south is different,” right out of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, followed by a brief segue to plotting reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ narrative tricks (death in childbirth), until Decoded moves into much more serious territory involving cryptography and the hazards of decryption.

All of these fascinating shifts are set to the background of Mai Jia’s own lengthy career as a cryptographer for the Chinese government.  Yet he is also, according to the information provided by the publisher, one of China’s most popular and successful contemporary novelists.  Mai Jia has published four novels; Decoded, the first of them, is also the first to be translated into English.  The appeal to readers will be the focus on counterintelligence and code-breaking and the “mysterious world of Unit 701,” top-secret obviously and based on actual fact—close enough, we assume, to actuality that we feel privy to prohibited information.

Central to the story is one Rong Jinzhen, also known as Zhendi and by other names, who is assumed to be the illegitimate descendant of a celebrated family of mathematical educators and university officials, but may, in fact, have no biological link to them.  The assumption is that his father was the uncontrollable, errant child, Killer Head, of the dynasty and that his mother was a prostitute.  What is certain is that he is a foundling, autistic, and possibly an idiot savant.  Totally obedient, but basically silent, he follows orders well, though (as we will subsequently learn) he is faithful to his elders and craves affection.  When he’s still quite young, he attends the university and studies mathematics, and (still young) is taken off to Unit 701 because one of the
decodeddirectors has learned of Jinzhen’s remarkable mathematical skills and—since this is during the Cold War— cryptology has moved to the forefront of intelligence.

By his silence and apparent lack of focus (reading novels and playing chess all day long with another mathematician who has gone mad and is referred to as “the lunatic”), Jinzhen is regarded as a total incompetent.  His co-workers wonder why he was  brought to Unit 701.  Moreover, the focus of the unit is a super-challenging code (American, or possibly Israeli) known as PURPLE.  No one has been able to figure it out, though everyone involved understands that it is dangerous.  As one of the narrators explains, “Cryptography involves one genius trying to work out what another genius has done—it results in the most appalling carnage.  To succeed in this mysterious and dangerous process, you call together the finest minds at your disposal.  What you are trying to do is apparently very simple: you are trying to read the secrets hidden in a string of Arabic numerals.  That sounds kind of fun, like a game; but this particular game has ruined the lives of many men and women of truly remarkable intelligence…that’s the most impressive thing about cryptography.” Shades of John Forbes Nash, Jr. of A Beautiful Mind.  (Nash and others are mentioned in the novel).

Those chess games and novels are deceptive.  When Jinzhen’s mentor searches for him one day and enters his bedroom, he discovers that every inch of the walls has been covered with calculations.  Shortly thereafter, Jinzhen cracks PURPLE and becomes an instant celebrity within the unit.  Seemingly, that would be ample success for one man, but it isn’t long before the opposition, realizing that the code for PURPLE has been cracked, formulates an even more difficult code, named BLACK.  This is where the novel surprises and the author’s plotting becomes nothing less than brilliant.  There was a western character who had a major influence on shaping Jinzhen’s career, but he left China and returned to the West years ago.  Is it possible that PURPLE and BLACK were both products of his genius and that he has all along been playing a trick on the younger man?  What place does geopolitics play in all this, especially national loyalties where secrets of state are involved?  Even questions about artificial intelligence.

Reading Mai Jia’s Decoded is like cryptography itself, trying to crack a difficult (if not impossible) code.  The narrative forms employed by the writer lead us into an intellectual puzzle with hidden doors and false fronts, so many delights to please the most jaded reader. And cryptography itself—that most dangerous of puzzles for the geniuses most of us will never know—well, here’s one further insight into the practitioner’s goal:

 “You are a rat.

“You are waiting inside a barn.

“But you cannot eat the millet.

“Each grain of millet has been daubed with a protective coating to prevent your teeth from gnawing into it.

“—That is cryptography.”

Mai Jia: Decoded

Trans by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 320 pp., $26

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Geoffrey McDonald
Obama’s Overtime Tweak: What is the Fair Price of a Missed Life?
Brian Cloughley
Hypocrisy, Obama-Style
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
A Day of Tears: Report from the “sHell No!” Action in Portland
Tom Clifford
Guns of August: the Gulf War Revisited
Renee Lovelace
I Dream of Ghana
Colin Todhunter
GMOs: Where Does Science Begin and Lobbying End?
Ben Debney
Modern Newspeak Dictionary, pt. II
Christopher Brauchli
Guns Don’t Kill People, Immigrants Do and Other Congressional Words of Wisdom
S. Mubashir Noor
India’s UNSC Endgame
Ellen Taylor
The Voyage of the Golden Rule
Norman Ball
Ten Questions for Lee Drutman: Author of “The Business of America is Lobbying”
Franklin Lamb
Return to Ma’loula, Syria
Masturah Alatas
Six Critics in Search of an Author
Mark Hand
Cinéma Engagé: Filmmaker Chronicles Texas Fracking Wars
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Patrick Hiller
The Icebreaker and #ShellNo: How Activists Determine the Course
Charles Larson
Tango Bends Its Gender: Carolina De Robertis’s “The Gods of Tango”