- Decoded: A Novel by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne
Allen Lane, 315 pp, £18.99, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 14 139147 2
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.
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