Although, Decoded blurb and reviews considered the book to be a thriller, it is surely not a thriller in the traditional sense. It is a languid and intriguing story of a mathematical genius who worked for a top secret cryptography unit of Chinese government. However, this is surely worth a read for its beautiful, poignant and intelligent portrayal of a life of a mathematics genius.
I had never heard of Mai Jia or any of his works before this book, but the glowing reviews and the bestseller status of this book made me pick this one. Also, since this year I am reading translated popular fiction of different countries, this book fit very well in my reading plan. In China, Mia Jia is a literary sensation and his work has been adapted in movies and television serials.
The blurb of this book and all the online reviews, highlight that this book is a thriller, about cryptography, code breaking etc., but I did not find any elements of a thriller or mention of these themes in first 100 pages. However, this book is not boring, on the contrary, the first 100 pages gave a very interesting snapshot of China in 1960s and described the childhood of a socially awkward mathematics genius Rong Jinzhen.
The story turns into a new direction, more familiar to the genre of spy thrillers, when Rong Jinzhen gets recruited by a mysterious character and disappears from the normal life to join the cryptography section of China’s military intelligence. Rong gets the task to solve two legendary ciphers PURPLE and BLACK, developed by his long time friend, professor and mentor who now works with Country X. Mai Jia (the pen name of Jiang Benhu), reproduces the development in the field of mathematics and cryptography with details that very few can provide. As Jiang Benhu, Mai Jia spent a significant part of his life in intelligence unit of People’s Liberation Army, and he borrows a lot from his personal and professional life to enrich the story.
Once Rong joins the cryptography unit, most of the story describes the challenges of cryptography, application of mathematical logic in cryptography and joys and frustration of code-breaking. Rong’s success makes him a national hero and a reverential figure in China. However, in subsequent turn of events he loses his mental balance.
The story does not start like a thriller and it also does not end like a thriller. The end of the story leaves some questions unanswered and might not be palatable to people who grew on Dan Brown, Lee Child or Baldacci. But as I said earlier, this is not a typical thriller.