FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
September 23, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Meaning of the Trump Surge
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: More Pricks Than Kicks
Mike Whitney
Oh, Say Can You See the Carnage? Why Stand for a Country That Can Gun You Down in Cold Blood?
Chris Welzenbach
The Diminution of Chris Hayes
Vincent Emanuele
The Riots Will Continue
Rob Urie
A Scam Too Far
Pepe Escobar
Les Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes, Obfuscation and Propaganda in Syria
Timothy Braatz
The Quarterback and the Propaganda
Sheldon Richman
Obama Rewards Israel’s Bad Behavior
Libby Lunstrum - Patrick Bond
Militarizing Game Parks and Marketing Wildlife are Unsustainable Strategies
Andy Thayer
More Cops Will Worsen, Not Help, Chicago’s Violence Problem
Louis Yako
Can Westerners Help Refugees from War-torn Countries?
David Rosen
Rudy Giuliani & Trump’s Possible Cabinet
Joyce Nelson
TISA and the Privatization of Public Services
Pete Dolack
Global Warming Will Accelerate as Oceans Reach Limits of Remediation
Franklin Lamb
34 Years After the Sabra-Shatila Massacre
Cesar Chelala
How One Man Held off Nuclear War
Norman Pollack
Sovereign Immunity, War Crimes, and Compensation to 9/11 Families
Lamont Lilly
Standing Rock Stakes Claim for Sovereignty: Eyewitness Report From North Dakota
Barbara G. Ellis
A Sandernista Priority: Push Bernie’s Planks!
Hiroyuki Hamada
How Do We Dream the Dream of Peace Together?
Russell Mokhiber
From Rags and Robes to Speedos and Thongs: Why Trump is Crushing Clinton in WV
Julian Vigo
Living La Vida Loca
Aidan O'Brien
Where is Europe’s Duterte? 
Abel Cohen
Russia’s Improbable Role in Everything
Ron Jacobs
A Change Has Gotta’ Come
Uri Avnery
Shimon Peres and the Saga of Sisyphus
Graham Peebles
Ethiopian’s Crying out for Freedom and Justice
Robert Koehler
Stop the Killing
Thomas Knapp
Election 2016: Of Dog Legs and “Debates”
Yves Engler
The Media’s Biased Perspective
Victor Grossman
Omens From Berlin
Christopher Brauchli
Wells Fargo as Metaphor for the Trump Campaign
Nyla Ali Khan
War of Words Between India and Pakistan at the United Nations
Tom Barnard
Block the Bunker! Historic Victory Against Police Boondoggle in Seattle
James Rothenberg
Bullshit Recognition as Survival Tactic
Ed Rampell
A Tale of Billionaires & Ballot Bandits
Kristine Mattis
Persnickety Publishing Pet-Peeves
Charles R. Larson
Review: Helen Dewitt’s “The Last Samurai”
David Yearsley
Torture Chamber Music
September 22, 2016
Dave Lindorff
Wells Fargo’s Stumpf Leads the Way
Stan Cox
If There’s a World War II-Style Climate Mobilization, It has to Go All the Way—and Then Some
Binoy Kampmark
Source Betrayed: the Washington Post and Edward Snowden
John W. Whitehead
Wards of the Nanny State
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail