Before you begin this book – the author’s 2005 debut and his first book to be translated in the West – you will have to put aside every preconception you have about spy novels. Although it is about a mathematical genius who is involved in breaking codes, it takes an awfully long time to reach that part of the story. Indeed, the first part of the book is involved mainly with the family history of the main character and most novels do not usually go into such detail. Mai Jia is a pseudonym for Jiang Benhu, who spent seventeen years in the People’s Liberation Army as an intelligence officer and is, therefore, perfectly placed to relate the story of his character – Rong Jinzhen (nicknamed Zhendi) – from his inauspicious birth to his University career and through to his recruitment at a research facility by the elusive intelligence officer, Zheng the Gimp. Rong Zinzhen is shown with almost autistic traits and we hear often from other characters about their reactions to him and other members of his family (genealogy certainly figures largely in this book), but our information is often through letters and diaries and, therefore, we have a distance from the action. In a way, we are almost with the narrator, discovering information alongside him, as he follows Rong Jinzhen’s path.
Once Rong Jinzhen is recruited, he becomes a cryptographer, involved in breaking a legendary code called Purple. This success causes him to become a Revolutionary Hero, but his attention then turns to the even greater matter of the code called Black. Although this is labelled a spy thriller, it is not in the usual form that you would expect from Le Carre, for instance. However, if you approach this with an open mind, you will find it a strangely compelling read. There is a reason why Mai Jia is such an enormous success in China – a bestselling author who has won China’s highest literary honour, and has had immense success. Before long, you find yourself totally immersed in the world and characters that have been created. His next novel is “In the Dark” and I hope that it will also be translated and appear in English soon.
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