Top positive review
on 27 June 2015
Mai Jai's debut novel Decoded may be many things, but it is not a spy novel. To some extent it is historical, but it really is a half-psychological, half-philosophical tale. If you expect some sort of cliff-hanger, some mystery in which it is revealed, in a stunning reversal at the end, that such and such character was always a behind-the-scenes puppeteer, you will be disappointed. The story is that of Rong Jinzhwen, a neglected youth from a family of brilliant academics, whose mathematical genius is discovered in his adolescence. Jinzhwen does not necessarily have the personality of a recluse, but circumstances contrive to make him so, and for his fragility to match the depth of his mental abilities. Part of the book is about code-breaking, but the it is essentially written in the style of a biography. At the same time, it is a meditation on genius and the nature and meaning of exceptionality.
Mai Jai's idiosyncratic style contributes to making the novel hard to place. It not so much that the narrative is interrupted with interviews of some of the protagonists, drawing the plot away from the format of a simple thriller and more towards the fictional biography it aims to be. The narrator's voice simply tends to jump around, from one topic to another, from action to general considerations at the oddest moments, from realistic to entirely off-beat scenes, like a cameraman changing lenses mid-way through shooting. Perhaps it is the effect of translation, perhaps Mai Jai aimed to mark his novel as specifically Chinese, an impression that also arises from its very orthodox political ambience. Decoded is an interesting work, but all this nevertheless makes for something of a curate's egg, and at the same time I would only give it a weak four stars.