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on 19 July 2015
Don't buy this book expecting a spy thriller - the cover may promise "China's answer to John Le Carre" but that comparison is rather misleading. The first half of this story is actually taken up with a longwinded history of the protagonist's family tree. Even though there's not much relevance to the second half of the book, it is an interesting account of early 20th Century Chinese life. Actually the book goes downhill with the main thrust of the second section - when the protagonist is recruited by the Chinese government to become a cryptographer. There is an interesting strand throughout which portrays the boundaries between genius and madness, but this can't make up for the weak plot. I was expecting some (even general) discussion on cryptography or code breaking itself, or indeed what the codes were being used for, but instead all we ever learn is that they are called PURPLE and BLACK. That's about it. [Spoiler] The protagonist cracks one and cracks up over the other. There's lots of pseudo-maths (such as whether pi really is a constant) and pseudo-code ("Who would have imagined that BLACK would have no lock on it, the cryptographic key was the number zero!" talk but it's never very convincing. Overall this is readable book, which would have been better as a straight account of Chinese family life as here it is clear the author has something interesting to say. On cryptography, maths and espionage - which should make the main thrust of the story - there is little of real interest.
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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.
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on 2 April 2015
The positive review attributed to the London Review of Books is actually from the Times Literary Supplement. The LRB's reviewer panned this book ("bad writing" on the part of the author, not the fault of translators Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne), but gives a fascinating contextualization of the novel and explains why we tend to praise those foreign books that look like the books we're producing ourselves, hence the Economist's glowing review.
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VINE VOICEon 17 November 2016
A fascinating novel - surprising and unfamiliar in its style and subject matter. Mai Jia is known as the father of Chinese espionage fiction, and he has evidently forged a completely new approach that to the genre, free of classic western (ie usually British) tropes and clichés. This probably explains why some were disappointed. It simply doesn't conform.

The central character, Rong Jinzhen, is elusive, an idiot-savant whom we never really understand; yet he is always compelling and poignant. We learn of his mathematical and cryptological genius but the book never gets bogged down in the science (as could so easily have happened). The Chinese state looms large over everything, and in some ways, this is a book about individuals having their lives and even identities subsumed into the state's greater good. Autonomy is never really an option. Yet in the midst of this overpowering atmosphere, there are moments of humanity and self-sacrifice. This is a world of total secrecy and incorrect surmises and guesswork.

But the key relationship is between Jinzhen and Prof Liseiwicz - the two great minds involved in the coding and decoding business of the book. The quest is the breaking of PURPLE and BLACK codes - and the professor initially tries to warn his protegé off cryptography because of its threat to mental stability. But as the layers are gradually peeled back in the course of the book (written in the style of a journalist writing an official history, and so interspersed with transcripts of interviews with the key individuals), the picture gradually sharpens into a melancholy and poignant whole.

Brilliantly written in sparse, and deceptively simple, style, this opens up fleeting glimpses into a world that is alien to most.
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on 16 May 2014
more than the plot, the narrative invites you to submerge in an odd world of rural struggle, violent social change and love of mathematics. Characters diffusely defined and somewhat detached
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on 9 February 2016
I was very disappointed with this novel. The claims on the cover are quite misleading. It is not a thriller and contains very little espionage. The book starts with a detailed family history before getting to the main part of the plot concerning an autistic mathematical genius who is recruited by Chinese intelligence to crack enemy codes. Unfortunately the main character is thinly drawn and we never get to really know or like him. The plot plods along. The most exciting thing that happens is that he loses his notebook and has to search for it. There is much rambling philosophy about the natures of genius and cryptography. The writing style is strangely repetitive with one flowery simile after another. I found it a real struggle to finish this book.
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on 10 October 2015
I am struggling to finish this book. The story and characters are dull and the time line is confusing. It has so many exclamation marks in the text, in the vain hope of making it exciting, that it makes me want to scream. I am not sure if it is poorly written or poorly translated or probably both.
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on 22 January 2015
Interesting and well written. Not quite what I thought it was when I bought it - I had expected a bit more about the actual process of codebreaking as well as the characters involved. If it had had that too then would have given it 5 stars.
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on 11 July 2015
An unusual novel, which was easy enough to read, and enjoyable. I admit however I had the expectation that, in terms of the plot, it would 'burst into life' at some point though it really never did. Definitely one to mull over.
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on 14 December 2014
This excellent book gives an insight into China while telling the story of a cryptologist trying to crack codes to keep his nation safe! Wonderfully translated into English!
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