by Mai Jia
Translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne;
Review by Verna Suit
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780374135805
Date: 18 March 2014 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Translated from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne
As this odd book begins, a member of the Rong family is sent abroad to learn divination in order to interpret the dreams of his grandmother. She soon dies so he stays on and becomes a mathematician. When he finally returns to China he founds a University with a renowned mathematics department, which many years later nurtures his niece's extraordinarily gifted grandson, Rong Jinzhen. In 1956, Jinzhen is recruited into and becomes the star of Unit 701, the national code breaking center for the People's Republic of China.
What begins as an epic becomes a convoluted telling of Rong Jinzhen's life. Jinzhen often contemplates the genius abilities that set him apart from others. (Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory would say, "I know exactly how he feels!") The narrative includes philosophical observations on mathematics, chess, China, computer development, national spy organizations, etc., and will undoubtedly draw the interest of many.
Much emphasis is on Rong Jinzhen's life as a cryptologist and "the tragedy of cryptography" that has destroyed geniuses. The author is said to have spent many years in Chinese intelligence so one assumes he has factual knowledge about China's cryptologic efforts. He gives away no technical details, however, only generalizations about efforts against "Purple" and "Black" codes.
Decoded is described on its book jacket as being a "riveting mystery" with "the tension of a spy thriller." This is just publishing hype. The book is often repetitive and at times soporific. Even so, analogies that are sprinkled throughout will intrigue and charm. The fact that the book begins and ends with mentions of dreams suggests that this is a dream to be interpreted. Decoded is indeed an enigma (not unlike the WWII cipher machine of that name that confounded Allied cryptologists.) Basically, the reader's job is to decode Decoded and make sense of it.