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You may recall that in my previous column I wrote about British crime writer Catherine Sampson, author of The Slaughter Pavilion that has a Chinese private investigator anti-hero protagonist, and her experience of living in Beijing and writing detective novels set there. Shortly after speaking to her, I encountered a Chinese writer of spy thrillers who’d had an interesting brush with censorship—and it seems that certain authorities are very touchy about what fiction writers do. So let’s go back to China once more and meet the master of the Chinese espionage novel.

In a packed room in Beijing’s The Bookworm bookshop, Mai Jia is speaking to his fans. A very serious-looking 50-year-old gentleman in spectacles, he could pass for a low-level politburo member rather than China’s biggest-selling thriller writer. But his books have sold five million copies, won every major Chinese literary award and he nets the highest advances in Chinese publishing. To tell you the truth, I soon notice that his Chinese readers have a tendency to compare him to Mo Yan, the 2012 Nobel Prize winner.

Decoded: By Mai Jia, Penguin, 315 pages, Rs599
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Decoded: By Mai Jia, Penguin, 315 pages, Rs599

“I was almost autistic," he says, and the hero, Rong, of his literary thriller Decoded—which has been released in English translation this year and is variously described by critics as “gripping", “subtle" and “highly unusual"—is a semi-autistic math genius and code-breaker recruited by the mysterious top-secret elite Unit 701 of the shadowy secret services.

The character Rong is the fruit of an illustrious family tree of mathematical geniuses; most of his ancestors were born with such big heads that the womenfolk in the family often died giving birth.

Initially Rong makes a splendid career for himself and cracks one of the trickiest codes ever developed by China’s No.1 enemy nation (which remains unnamed in the novel), gaining him great respect in the secret service. Next he is pitted against an even more complex code, the deciphering of which slowly pushes him to the brink of madness.

The author, Mai, admits that one of the reasons he wrote the book was because that very character had always been tucked away inside him.

Another likeness between writer and protagonist is that Mai joined the army and worked for 17 years as a cryptographer—though these things being top secret, he can’t explain the exact nature of his job. He clarifies that some foreign newspapers have wrongly described him as a career spy: “I was never a spy: I was a ‘neighbour’ of spies."

Being a spy isn’t a very interesting job in itself, according to him, but he’s fascinated by what happens psychologically to the people who inhabit such environs. “That’s something that literature should take a closer look at."

Unsurprisingly, it was initially very difficult to get published in Chinese—publishers are wary of anything that may appear to break various official secrets’ Acts. Indeed, shortly after his book was released in Chinese, a weird mechanical voice called his publishers and said the book leaked secrets and must immediately be taken off shop shelves and destroyed.

Mai wasn’t ready to accept that a novel which took him 11 years to write could be snubbed just like that, so he went to see his old “neighbours". A committee of 23 security experts was constituted and they jointly vetted the novel page by page, and in the end 21 of them said there was no reason to pulp it, which says a lot about the new openness in China—three decades ago it would have been inconceivable that a novel like Decoded could become a top best-seller.

When I ask Mai if he got any nice or encouraging comments at all from his old “neighbours", he first gets apprehensive—maybe he mistakes me for a foreign spy—and says that it is a positive verdict in itself that they allowed it to be published. Then he mulls over the question a little longer. Finally he adds that some of the “neighbours" now see a good outcome in this, because earlier when anybody asked about their spooky jobs, and what they did for a living, they didn’t really have any answer to give. Whereas now they can tell all the curious people to buy Decoded: “So I became something of a hero for them," says Mai in his soft, understated tone.

In China, most of his books have been made into wildly popular blockbuster movies. And now the rest of the world can get a glimpse into that hitherto hidden world too—through Decoded.

Zac O’Yeah is the author ofOnce Upon A Time In Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout Of Bengaluru.

Also Read | Zac’s previous Lounge columns

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