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Spy novelist digs into own life
By Xu Qin

PAST experiences are often a gold mine for writers. For Mai Jia, one of China’s most popular contemporary writers, his yearlong service in a military intelligence unit some 30 years ago cracked open a door to his literary glory, both at home and abroad.

“The biggest vanity of being a writer is to be read,” said Mai, a native of Zhejiang Province. “When I first started writing, subjects of my stories focused on my hometown and countryside. However, those stories of mine failed to appeal to the readers. By the time I turned 30, I felt panicked and started to dig more into my life experiences.”

Looking to make a breakthrough, Mai started writing “Decoded,” a spy story on cryptography, in 1991. When completed, the book was submitted to 17 publishing houses, all of which rejected it for reasons that it was too sensitive or controversial. Mai was forced to rewrite his script three times. Every time it was a complete overhaul of the previous version. But he didn’t give up.

By the time it was finally picked by the China Youth Press in 2002, the book had been abridged to 210,000 words, with more than 1 million words cut and 20 episodes changed from the original script. A month after the book’s release, the State Secrets Bureau called the publisher, ordering the books off the shelf, promotions stopped and republishing suspended until further orders. This time, Mai saw red and appealed.

“Decoded” tells the story of Rong Jinzhen, an eccentric descendent from a famous Chinese family of salt merchants in the 19th century. As his talent and math genius are discovered by the military in the 1960s, Rong is recruited to a code-breaking arm of China’s secret services, Unit 701, where he is assigned to break two highly advanced codes called PURPLE and BLACK. His attempt to solve the codes leads to him becoming China’s greatest and most celebrated code-breaker — until he makes a mistake. Then begins his descent through the unfathomable darkness of the world of cartography into madness.

Truth, reality at core of his fiction

“All my characters and the anecdotes in the story are fictional. But they all come from the truth and in some ways could be more powerful than truth. To expose the truth is the mission of my writing. I don’t see that there is any problem in a story that reveals the sincerity, goodness and beauty of human beings,” Mai said in an interview with Shanghai Daily last weekend.

When a symposium attended by 23 experts including renowned authors, decoding experts and censor officers was called in Beijing to discuss his writing, Mai Jia was given the green light.

Su Tong, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize for “Boat to Redemption,” said: “Decoded’s hero, Jinzhen, is unique in Chinese literature; his talent, his legend, his heart-breaking loneliness. I respect him, but I also feel pain for him.”

Encouraged by the first success, Mai wrote and published a series of spy novels in the next few years, including “In the Dark (2003),” “Whispers on the Wind (2007)” and “The Message (2010).” The spy trilogy was adapted into films and TV series in 2011 and 2012, with “In the Dark” easily leading the 2012 box office by collecting a solid 250 million yuan (US$40 million).

 But his works didn’t get international notice until British sinologist Olivia Milburn happened to find “Decoded” and “In the Dark” at a Shanghai airport during her trip to the city in 2010. She translated a few chapters into English and introduced Mai’s works to the Penguin Random House editors. A deal was reached almost immediately between the publisher and Mai’s overseas agent.

“I had been thinking for some time about a modern Chinese literature translation project, but the crucial thing was to pick the right kind of book, something that would appeal to readers from many different countries,” Milburn said in a letter interview with Shanghai Daily.

Milburn, who teaches Chinese in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Seoul National University, South Korea, said the detail was one of the aspects of Mai’s writings that she particularly admired.

“I must say that it has been an honor to translate these two books, which I think are wonderful works of literature... this has been a way to introduce Mai Jia’s writings to a wider international audience,” Milburn said. “It is really important that modern classics like these should be available to people who do not know Chinese; hopefully this will inspire more people to study Chinese, to read books about China and so on.”

The English edition of “Decoded” debuted in March this year in Britain and the United States. It became the first contemporary Chinese fiction published by Penguin Classics, marking its entry into the mainstream of global literature.

While 17 publishers from 13 countries have reached deals to publish “Decoded,” translation of “In the Dark” is also under way and should be published next year, Milburn confirmed.

Today Mai, 51, has become something of a phenomenon in China and enjoys widespread fame. With total sales of over 5 million copies, he is hailed as the forerunner of Chinese espionage fiction that has created a unique genre combining spy craft, code-breaking, crime, human drama, historical fiction and metafiction. He has won almost every major award in China, including the prestigious — Mao Dun Award in 2008.

With income from his royalties, Mai who lives in Hangzhou has set up an independent library at the Innovative Park near the Xixi Wetland and named it Mai Town.

“I am basically a bookish kind of person like my favorite Argentina writer Borges,” Mai said. “Reading is a way of my life. And I want myself surrounded by good books and people with dreams of literature.”

The two-story library boasts some 2 million copies of books, which are free to read for anyone who drops by.

 “Coffee is free, drinks are free... the only rule is you cannot take the books away,” said Yan Yan, who is in charge of the daily running of the library.

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