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Espionage novel cracks the code for an English release

Updated: 2014-04-01 07:27
By Xinhua ( China Daily)

The espionage novel Decoded has become the first contemporary Chinese fiction ever published by Penguin Classics, marking its entry into the mainstream of global literature.

The English edition of the work by Mai Jia debuted in 21 countries recently and is the first of Mai's oeuvre of four books to be translated into English.

Decoded was first published in Chinese in 2002.

 Espionage novel cracks the code for an English release

Author Mai Jia enjoys popularity with a series of espionage novels. Provided to China Daily

Its main character, Rong Jinzhen, is an autistic math genius from an illustrious family. Rong is hired by the military's top secret Unit 701 to break two highly advanced codes - Code Purple and Code Black. He experiences loneliness, loss and finally madness.

The novel also explores metaphysical concepts, such as dream interpretation and the fine line between genius and insanity.

John Makinson, chairman of Penguin Random House, visited Mai in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and brought him a deluxe English edition of Decoded.

Makinson says he hoped the novel's English version would help Penguin Classics find more Chinese authors and publications.

International awareness of Decoded is well deserved. The top-selling Chinese espionage novelist and former soldier found writing the book to be a long and arduous process.

"It took 10 years and the manuscript was sent back 17 times to be rewritten," says Mai, 50.

He compared the book to a grindstone that, despite the hard work, helped him complete his literary creation.

Decoded and a series of other espionage novels brought him fame. Millions of copies have been sold and some works were made into TV dramas. The author himself won the Mao Dun prize, a top national literary award, in 2008.

"The success of Decoded was a stroke of luck," Mai says. "I felt God was sympathetic and offered me a piece of bread."

He was right to some extent, as it was indeed a stroke of luck for China expert Olivia Milburn to have found the book and translate it into English.

Milburn bought the Chinese editions of two Mai novels - Decoded and In the Dark - at Shanghai airport in 2010 "just to kill time", as her flight back to Seoul had been delayed.

She says she found the books particularly fascinating partly because her grandfather worked as a cryptographer during World War II.

So she translated just one chapter of In the Dark into English and introduced the works to Penguin Random House editors through her friend Julia Lovell, another Sinologist who had translated works by Lu Xun and Eileen Chang into English.

A deal was reached immediately between the publisher and Mai's overseas agent.

While 17 publishers from 13 countries have reached deals to publish Decoded, translation of In the Dark is also under way and Penguin Random House expects a sample book will be available by the end of this year.

Penguin Classics, founded in 1935, has also published works by older generations of Chinese writers, including A Dream of Red Mansions by 18th-century author Cao Xueqin, The True Story of Ah-Q by Lu Xun, Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu, as well as Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang.

Books in this series are generally considered to have entered the Western canon.