Spy thriller novelist Mai Jia wows foreign audiences

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/29 18:08:39

Spy thriller novelist wows foreign audiences


The Chinese edition of Decoded Photo: Courtesy of Thinkingdom Media Group Ltd


Spy novelist Mai Jia is earning international acclaim. Photo: Courtesy of Thinkingdom Media Group Ltd



If hearty stories about the hardships of rural life form your primary impression of modern Chinese literature then Mai Jia's spy thrillers might supply a much-needed last-minute antidote.

Decoded (2002), one of the prize-winning writer's most acclaimed works, has been translated into 33 languages and was recently included by the Daily Telegraph along with 19 other spy bestsellers from the UK, US and Russia for its "best 20 spy novels of all time" list, making it the only Asian representative on the list.

Dubbing Decoded as "riddling, dreamlike and digressive, in the manner of classical Chinese fiction," the list also includes world spy classics such as Ian Fleming's From Russia, with Love (1957), John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity (1980) that were later adapted into hit movies.

"I felt really surprised and honored that my work made it onto the list as it featured so many heavyweight writers of the genre," Mai told the Global Times on Thursday.

Talking about Decoded's unexpected overseas popularity, the 53-year-old author was confused.

"I was told there are some 400 foreign articles talking about Decoded and me. It confused me but I am not interested to find out why," he said. "An author should base his work on his literary interests rather than market demand."

More than just experience

Talking about Decoded, Mai said the novel was rejected 17 times by domestic publishing houses and finally published 11 years after he first started writing about it in 1991.

"It had something to do with red lines set on the publication of this genre at that time, but now I feel there are few red lines for my writing," Mai told the Global Times.

The 2002 book follows the story of Rong Jinzhen, an autistic mathematician working as a cryptographer at a national security department called Unit 701 and a character that Mai described as 60 to 70 percent similar to himself in terms of personality.

Seventeen years in the army and eight months as an intern for a decoding department did supply Mai with useful material, but more usually his inspiration comes from "inner impulses rather than just experience," he said.

"The time I spent in the so-called 'secret service unit' was less than a year, which is good because if I stayed there too short a time, I might be totally ignorant of the field and wouldn't be able to create all those stories. But if I stayed longer, I might be overloaded with secrets and have few impulses to write stories."

One of the bestselling modern authors in China, Mai also created intriguing '30s spy battles between the Communist Party of China and Kuomintang including In the Dark and The Message that were later adapted into a hit Chinese TV series and movie of the same names.

The success of the 2006 TV adaptation of In the Dark in particular sparked spy versus spy series across the country over the past decade. Many have been lambasted by Chinese audiences as poorly made with clichéd characters and crippled plots.

"Ninety-nine percent of recent Chinese spy series are assembly line products of poor quality," Mai said. "My suggestion is never treat your stories like merchandise from the very beginning. Write slowly."

Foreign links

The format the writer used in The Message, featuring the Kuomintang government locking up people in a house and trying to eke out who is the secret agent is similar to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. But Mai said his inspiration actually came from renowned Argentine poet and novelist Jorge Luis Borges.

"The Message was inspired by Borges' spy novel The Garden of Forking Paths," Mai said. "Even though I like reading Christie's novels, I won't embrace her."

"Christie is like a statue on a plaza and embracing her would look silly and too eye-catching," Mai said.

Spy novels evolved from detective fiction, but while the latter is more like a fantasy game of wit and logic, the "spy novel is a more realistic genre inspired by the never-ending wars and fights of reality," Mai said.

"But I think Decoded is not a typical spy novel and it is probably due to this that it made it on the Telegraph list," he said.

Best known for his spy battle and cryptographer stories, the author said he is thinking about quitting the genre.

"I will stop writing about spy battles. I am thinking about writing something different, deciphering codes about human minds and humanity."

Newspaper headline: Decoded delights

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