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China's Dan Brown is a Subtle Subversive

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The literary writer who attains commercial success is a rare breed. One who mixes genres, merges history with fable, and mines the constrictive reality of his repressive state—while boasting of sales in the millions—may only exist in one person. And, surprisingly enough, that person is Chinese.

According to the American publisher of the writer who goes by the pen name Mai Jia, Mai is the “most popular author in the world you’ve never heard of.” (Pen names are not unusual for Chinese writers; his real name is Jiang Benhu.) An espionage novelist who navigates the top-secret world of cryptography, Mai has been hailed as China’s Dan Brown. In the words of Mai himself, he is a pessimist whose abiding faith in literature gives him the power to, as he half-jokes, “converse with the devil.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux has recently released the translation of his 2002 bestseller, Decoded, whose success in China has earned him a hit TV series and countless Chinese fans.

Mai had the ill-luck of being born into a landowning, reactionary, Christian family in the 1960s, when Party doctrine declared the three most egregious political affronts to be capitalist thinking, private property, and religion. Solitude and ostracization were part of daily life for the young Mai, but they also proved ideal conditions for a boy who liked to “talk to himself” on the page; his journals stacked up to 36 volumes. At the age of 17, he was recruited by the Army Engineering Academy into a top-secret unit only later revealed to be a training ground for spies. Despite a marked preference for the pen over the pistol, Mai stayed in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for the next 17 years. He turned this acquaintance with the unusually intelligent men and women of the PLA into material for his novels. After Decoded, Mai went on to write three more novels about military intelligence spanning from the Republican Era to the Cultural Revolution.

Rong Jingzhen, the autistic genius at the center of Decoded, was—like Mai—born in Maoist China under inauspicious circumstances. Nicknamed the Grim Reaper—his extraordinarily large head supposedly killed his mother during his birth—Rong grows up companionless. About the boy’s brilliance, however, there never seems much doubt: “There were many things about Rong that an ordinary person could simply not understand,” the narrator observes. “He could go for months, maybe as long as a year, without saying a word, but when he finally did open his mouth, he would say something that quite possibly was more important than everything you have said in your entire life put together.” When his remarkable mathematical aptitude is recognized, he is forcibly conscripted into a cryptology unit in the service of Communist China. The adult Rong is at first ambivalent and then quickly possessed by his project, dedicating his life to cracking two famously impossible codes.

Rong’s story is narrated from the viewpoint of an investigative journalist whose findings give shape to a life of conflicting allegiances. As a progeny of a family of Chinese patriots, Rong’s childhood caregiver is a Christian foreigner named Mr. Auslander. A decade and a half later, Rong is mentored by yet another foreigner, a Polish refugee from Nazi Germany, who guides his young protégé until teacher and student find each other on opposing sides of a covert war. Rong is trained internationally, at Princeton, Harvard, and Cambridge. Work, more than his job, is perhaps Rong’s only consistent devotion.

Publisher promotions aside, Mai Jia’s novel does not really match up to Dan Brown’s. In fact, Decoded quite blithely—and deliberately—defies the genre expectations. Gone are the Fleming-esque conventions of easy villainy and extravagant violence. In their place emerges a world as morally ambiguous as it is politically compromised. Mai’s literary hero is not Bond but Borges—the Argentine fantasist whose fictions resemble philosophical arguments more than pot-boiling plotlines.

For both Borges and Mai, storytelling is a way of conveying, and making sense of, mystery. Like Borges, Mai plays with the authorial voice, alternately lengthening and trimming the distance between fictional narrator and its creator. “The main protagonist of my story still has not appeared yet, though he will soon arrive,” we are told in the first pages of Decode. Then Mai adds a Borgesian caveat: “In one sense, you could say that he is already here … in the same way that when a seed begins to sprout, the first shoots are invisible below the surface of the well-watered soil.” From this, a fable-like genealogy of the illustrious Rong clan unfolds. Despite its frequent game-like turns, the story is a fundamentally a human one.

The novel’s translation into English, at this time when U.S.-China relations edge increasingly toward brinksmanship, is appropriate. Again, like Borges—whose works often grappled with the concept and consequences of nationalism—Mai tracesthe relationship between the Rongs and their motherland. On the very first page, Mai heralds Rong’s ancestor as “a great patriot,” a title and notion—in the context of China’s riotous political twists and turns—that at first rings glorious but is subsequently rendered absurd.

The idea of enduring allegiance to a single party is patently impossible. The Rongs are celebrated as great patriots, but, as the readers quickly come to realize, the price of their patriotism is ideological inconsistency. In 1928, even after its government introduces a state monopoly that effectively eliminates the family’s livelihood, the Rongs remained proud nationalists. Two decades and 40 pages later, when the communist insurgency had defeated the ruling party, the Rongs’ patriotism mysteriously survives intact: The family “beggared themselves in order to demonstrate their loyal support for the People’s Republic.” Mai’s elision here is stealthy enough that it doesn’t break the narrative (a cursory explanation that the Rongs were treated unfairly is offered), but it is a conspicuous deficit of logic that quietly queries the meaning of political allegiance.

Mai, who has previously said that “literature is a higher calling than politics” is not a dissident writer. Censors have had no reason to ban his work, and he has been awarded some of the county’s highest literary prizes, as well as its heftiest advances. Part of Mai’s success has to do with his ability to make his novels about the story itself rather than political sore-spots in the vein of Ma Jian or other Chinese writers who write primarily in exile. This is particularly relevant today in light of President Xi Jinping’s redoubled appeals to nationalism: Revolutionary heroes like Lei Feng, largely the product of communist mythmaking five decades earlier, are being redistributed as roles models. Indeed, as Mai’s depiction of the patriotic code-breaker suggests, Rong could have very much been heralded as such a role model.

This is why Mai’s subtle subversion works so well. Mai once compared his character to none other than Edward Snowden: ‘‘Both Snowden and Rong Jinzhen were abandoned by God and the tragedy is that there are quite a few people like that in every country.”Even in these imprecise terms, it is a compelling comparison.“You are going to be working for the nation—you should be happy,” a government agent tells Rong. The distance between a pawn and a patriot is smaller than it seems.

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