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Cryptography and Cryptographers


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:




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

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