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Decoded: A Novel 
by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne.
Allen Lane, 315 pp., £18.99, March 2014, 978 0 14 139147 2
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Mai Jia’s success​ in the West comes as no surprise to his readers in China: we like our airport novels as much as anyone else. It’s odd, though, to hear Decoded – a thriller with a genius cryptographer as its hero – praised as a serious work of literature, which is how the Economist greeted it when the English translation appeared this year: ‘finally, a great Chinese novel.’ But it was just as odd that Mai Jia carried off the Mao Dun Prize for Literature in 2008, a little like the Man Booker going to Dan Brown. Mai Jia is a genre novelist, whose books have sold several million copies in China, and an assiduous self-publicist. When Mai Jia’s publisher told the press he would pay an advance of ten million yuan for his new novel, Whisper of the Wind, Mai Jia denied the story, denounced his publisher as a hype artist and so got double the exposure. The TV adaptation of his novel, Plot, won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2007 Shanghai TV Festival; Mai Jia took the producer to court over which of their names should appear first in the credits. When The Message – a film based on one of the elements in Plot – was released in 2009, he got embroiled in a legal dispute about self-plagiarism. I can’t recall any of his exploits – novel, film or TV adaptation – that hasn’t caused a stir. Until now Decoded, his first novel, published in China in 2002, was the least popular of his books (he called it ‘undervalued’), but Penguin’s decision to publish a translation has done wonders for its reputation. It may not figure on their classics list, as Mai Jia modestly admitted to Chinese journalists, but he joins the sequence of distinguished Chinese authors Penguin has published in the last ten years, including Qian Zhongshu, Lu Xun and Eileen Chang. All the same, if Anglophone readers are after a Chinese spy novel, Xiao Bai’s historically rich French Concession, set in 1930s Shanghai, will be published by Harper Collins next year, and is a better bet than Mai Jia’s potboiler.

Perry Link wrote a balanced review – marginally favourable – of Decoded in the New York Times. This was difficult for Mai Jia, since Link has been banned from entering mainland China because of his translation of The Tiananmen Papers. Mai Jia quickly finessed the issue on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter): Link, he said, ‘seems to have a hidden agenda. After failing to sniff out the political dissidence in my novel, he turned sour. Literature is bigger than politics.’ I didn’t see much that was ‘sour’ in Link’s review, but Mai Jia had good reason to distance himself from one of China’s foreign enemies. He has always been an establishment figure. As Jiang Benhu – Mai Jia is a pen name – he studied radio engineering at the People’s Liberation Army Engineering and Technology University and worked as a technical inspector and propaganda officer. In 1987, at the age of 23, he went to the People’s Liberation Army Arts College, and then made army propaganda for TV and radio while writing fiction. With the Mao Dun award under his belt he ascended gracefully to the heights of Chinese letters, and in 2013 was appointed chair of the Zhe Jiang Province Writers’ Association. (Writers’ associations in China allow professional writers to draw a regular wage from the government, as if they were civil servants.) He was now a figure to be reckoned with: he’d been repackaged as a serious novelist and he was a major bestseller.

Even so there are plenty of readers in China who think of him as a spy writer who prefers baggy plots, Lone Ranger clichés and gushing emotions to psychological acuity of the kind you find in John le Carré, whom he’s unlikely to have read. Mai Jia has no interest in the tradition of espionage literature (in a promotional video for Penguin he mentioned only James Bond and Mission Impossible). ‘I read very little,’ he explains, ‘so I have the audacity to write freely with no baggage.’ Decoded is far removed from any real-world spying, even though it was banned at first, under suspicion of containing – and disclosing – classified information. But when the intelligence professionals looked it over, it was found to be harmless. The codes in the novel are vague. All we really know of them is their names: ‘Purple Code’ and the extra elusive ‘Black Code’. The focus is on the genius cryptographer himself, Rong Jinzhen, an obsessive number-cruncher who singlehandedly saves the day through his work in a mysterious intelligence unit called 701. Towards the end of the book he loses one of the precious notebooks in which he’s been trying to decipher the codes, and goes mad. It isn’t exactly a great moment in the literary expression of inner torment:

‘Noooooo – !’ Rong Jinzhen roared, smashing through the door and rushing out into the downpour, assailing the darkness with invective: ‘God, you have been unjust to me! God, I want to let black defeat me! Only by letting black defeat me can there be justice! God, only the vilest person need suffer such unfairness! God, only the vilest divinity could force me to suffer such blame! Oh wicked Lord, you shouldn’t do this! Oh vicious God, I will fight you to the bitter end – !’

The translator, Olivia Milburn, has done her best, but there isn’t a lot to work with. Eventually the narrator finds Rong’s notebook and returns it to his wife, then asks her if she ever really loved the geeky saviour of the nation. ‘I love him as I love my country,’ she says. (Mai Jia is a staunch patriot.) ‘Do you regret marrying him?’ he asks. The narrator sees ‘that this question took her by surprise; she opened her eyes wide, stared at me and replied excitedly: “Regret? When you love your country, how can you regret it? No! Forever the answer will be no – !” Her eyes immediately filled with tears and she began to sniffle as if she was about to cry.’ In the original that last sentence actually reads: ‘I saw her eyes suddenly fill with tears, and felt a twitch in my nose. I wanted to cry.’ Translators must do as they see fit, even if it means a bit of role-swapping. But Milburn’s got the tone right: we find the same uninflected faith in nation and party in Mai Jia’s other novels – he’s not called a ‘Red writer’ for nothing – and even if she botched the translation, it’s an authentic touch to have the hero’s dreary wife affirming the author’s dreary values.

In​ 2005, John Updike wrote in the New Yorker that the translation of contemporary Chinese fiction ‘appears to be the lonely province of one man’. He was referring to Howard Goldblatt, who recently gave a talk in Shanghai on why Chinese fiction isn’t popular in the West. He argued that contemporary Chinese fiction fails to explore the inner life of characters: it is driven by plot, and often by a plodding narrative impulse that can move round and round in circles like an ox at a well. Chinese novelists plug away for so long that Goldblatt feels obliged to remove redundant passages or rewrite them (his editors agree). Take note: the Mo Yan you have in English is a Goldblatt version of the original. It’s rumoured in China that Mo Yan passes all the royalties from his novels in English to his ambassador-rewriter, who remarked drily about the novelist he had reinvented for an Anglophone readership: ‘Mo Yan, among all Nobel laureates in recent years, probably is the only one who doesn’t know any foreign language.’ But among Chinese writers Mo Yan is typical: most of his peers in mainland China are monolingual. Their primary literary sources are the Western canon in translation; the Chinese canon is a secondary interest – second by a long way.

China experienced a publishing boom in the 1980s. In the interval between Deng’s economic reforms and China’s late accession to the World Copyright Convention in 1992, there was a copyright vacuum which publishing houses rushed to fill, printing classic and modern fiction from any language, with no holds barred. The 1980s were a golden age for publishing and reading in China. We got everything from Shakespeare and Cervantes to Marguerite Duras and Milan Kundera. Readers had been starved for more than two decades: some good books sold in their millions. García Márquez topped the list, and as a consequence influenced countless Chinese novelists – including Mo Yan, who confessed that he struggled for twenty years to shake off the García Márquez effect. Yu Hua had a similar problem with Calvino. Can Xue (Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories, Vertical Motion) was our ‘female Kafka’, and we had a coterie of writers who worshipped Borges, Mai Jia among them. Contemporary Chinese fiction is a now a hybrid. García Márquez may not have cared about the cohorts of Chinese novelists he fathered through copyright violation, but he was unhappy about the sale of unauthorised translations of his work in China. After touring the country in 1990 he decided never to authorise another translation of his work into Chinese. Twenty years later, shortly before his death, he – or his agent in Catalonia – changed his mind, and the rights for One Hundred Years of Solitude sold for a princely sum.

But​ there is good contemporary fiction in China. When I was a student, I picked up Ah Cheng’s novella King of Chess as light relief from the Chinese literature syllabus – early Chinese texts are demanding – and found a fluid combination of classical and vernacular Chinese, as if the distinction had never come about. The hero is a chess freak, born into a destitute family living through the Cultural Revolution. He’s dispatched to the countryside as a labourer, like millions of other young people who would become the ‘lost generation’, but remains oblivious to the starvation, the petty corruption of local officials, the violence between contending Maoist factions: he’s only interested in chess. The climax is a simultaneous game with nine opponents, played – in his case – without a board. The moves are in his head.

Ah Cheng once told his French translator that he belonged to a Chinese tradition of biji xiaoshuo, sketches and notes towards a piece of fiction rather than a full-length, finished work. He had planned to write a series of novellas featuring eight kings, but only finished three before abandoning fiction: King of Chess, King of Trees and King of Children. Since the early 1990s he has only written essays. After travelling in Europe and living in the US for years, he returned to China to teach art history at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and carry out research into ancient myths and charts. His preference for essays or notes over extended narrative binds him to an ancient tradition. The educated Chinese elite has never really valued fiction. The Chinese word for novel, xiao shuo, means ‘small talk’: poetry and the essay are the carriers of Chinese intellectual heritage. For a long time vernacular storytelling was regarded as vulgar entertainment, for the tea house and the brothel; when literary types get together they exchange poetry, calligraphy and ink drawings. Until very recently ‘reading groups’ were rare.

Western sinologists, with their background in the European novelistic tradition, have rummaged through China’s past in search of ‘literary novels’ and identified four 16th-century ‘masterworks’: The Plum in the Golden Vase, Journey to the West, Water Margin and Romance of Three Kingdoms. It’s interesting that none of the authors is named: the last three are derived from sagas and folk stories, and whoever set down the most recent versions felt no need to put their names to them, though this hasn’t stopped an army of Chinese scholars chasing after ghosts. The Plum in the Golden Vase (also known as The Golden Lotus) is different: it was written in the late 16th century by a single author with the comic pseudonym Lan Ling Xiao Xiao Sheng (the Scoffer from Lan Ling). The pseudonymity may have to do with the book’s erotic content, but it’s also down to the fact that fiction was not an approved pursuit of the upper classes, to which the author undoubtedly belonged. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Cao Xueqin put his name on A Dream of the Red Chamber but he never planned to distribute his masterpiece widely: he wrote for himself, and a few friends and admirers.

The novel only gained ground in China after a flood of foreign literature in translation at the end of the 19th century. The powerhouse of this enterprise was the firm of Lin Shu and Partners, which quickly dominated the market. Lin Shu himself didn’t know any foreign languages, but he was able to produce translations of more than 180 works of fiction, including Dumas, Tolstoy, Conan Doyle and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His polyglot partners toiled away, decanting novels out of the original, and he turned the results into elegant classical Chinese, rewriting or expunging at will. These bowdlerised Western novels had a huge impact. So did the first groups of overseas students returning to China in the 1910s and 1920s. The pioneering figure was Lu Xun, rightly regarded as the father of the modern Chinese novella: a dark, suffocating writer with a predilection for torturing cats. Eileen Chang and Qian Zhongshu – the other names on Penguin’s Chinese literature list – came later: she wrote Love in a Fallen City in 1943, and Qian Zhongshu published Fortress Besieged in 1947. They are both serious writers whose work appeared just before the thirty years of information drought that was at its worst during the Cultural Revolution. In 1984, Harvest magazine in Shanghai reprinted Love in a Fallen City and Ah Cheng read it. I suspect that his discovery of her work, along with Qian Zhongshu’s, had a lot to do with his decision to abandon fiction: he was no match, he felt, for either of them. There have been a few young avant-garde talents like Ma Yuan (Ballad of the Himalayas), and stylists like Wang Shuo (Please Don’t Call Me Human), but they burned out fast.

Most writers of the 1980s now live comfortably on royalties or stipends from the writers’ associations. Chinese writers complain that censorship puts limits on contemporary literature: there are so many things – information about political movements, ethnic conflicts, underground religions, most scandals – that you can’t write about for publication. But in the end this looks like a justification for mediocrity. The Soviet Union was a fully censored environment, but there were good poets, novelists and composers. Censorship is no excuse for bad writing. Neither is patriotism, whatever Mai Jia believes.

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