Monday, June 30, 2014

male actor outside of Japan?

In this post I was wondering who is the most famous contemporary Japanese male actor known outside of Japan, I read this news via Asahi AJW about accolades heaped upon the film Watashi no otoko directed by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, which was recently awarded the Golden George Prize at the 36th Moscow International Film festival, Asano Tadanobu also received an award for best actor for the film, I'll let you search/google which award he won. This news lead me to contemplate who is the most famous male Japanese actor known outside of Japan?, of course I'd also like to know which female actress is considered the most famous. Asano is an actor whose performances I've deeply enjoyed over the years, although I've not seen all of his films, although each time I've seen one of his films I usually find myself readjusting which of his films is my favourite, for me he is like a mixture between Mifune and Eastwood, in his earlier films the less his dialogue the more he seems to express, which is quite a rarity in contemporary cinema. Who might you think?.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Strange Library/Fushigina tosyukan by Murakami Haruki





















Recently stumbled upon the news of the appearance in translation of Murakami Haruki's Fushigina Tosyukan/Strange Library, from 2008 with illustrations from Sasaki Maki. No news yet of the translator's identity, but I think this is due to appear before the end of the year, which I'm presuming will also appear simultaneously in an edition from Knopf.

the book at Random House.

the book at Amazon Japan

Maki Sasaki at J'Lit and Japanese Wiki

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Isle of South Kamui and Other Stories by Nishimura Kyotaro



Amongst the latest of titles published by Thames River Press is The Isle of South Kamui and Other Stories by Nishimura Kyotaro translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, the collection is selected from the lists of the JLPP, which has now seen nearly all of it's titles listed in English translation published, there remains Alfred Birnbaum's translation of Abe Kazushige's Sinsemillas, and Christopher Belton's translation of Mori Eto's Colorful, Stephen Snyder's translation of Maijo Otaro's Asura Girl is due in December and Paul Warham's translation of Ground Zero, Nagasaki: Stories by Seirai Yuichi, whose title story was awarded the Tanizaki Prize in 2007, is due in January 2015, all of which makes the demise of the JLPP more lamentable.  
 
Nishimura was awarded the Edogawa Prize in 1965 for Tenshi no Kizuato/A Scar of an Angel and also the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1981 for Shuchakueki satsujin jiken/The Terminal Murder Case, and is also famous for the character Inspector TotsugawaThe Isle of South Kamui and Other Stories contains five stories, the first being the title story, The Isle of South Kamui, which sees a doctor, who after having problems with a woman connected to the yakuza takes a post on a remote island south of the island of Kamui. On the ferry crossing to the island the doctor becomes acquainted with a salesman who appears at various moments throughout the story, in some ways he is the only character that the doctor has to be able to rationalize his observations of the island with, on his arrival the doctor observes the 'harvesting' of one of the local species of birds, the Streaked Shearwater, a protected bird which the islanders are permitted to hunt on one day of the year only, the doctor observes the sweating bodies of the women during the bloodletting and the entrails of the birds whose meat is later served for him at his welcome party, the salesman informs him of the licentiousness of the women of the island which the salesman participates in and which the doctor also falls prey to. In it's remoteness the island's customs appear to be rooted in the past, and out of sync with contemporary society they refer to the mainland with its ancient name of Yamato and the electricity on the island is switched off at eight, for guidance in matters of importance they consult an oracle of a mountain temple, but the crux of the story comes to a head with the outbreak of a contagious disease which can be fatal within twenty four hours after contracting it, knowing that the disease was brought on to the island the islanders suspicions focus on the salesman and doctor. With not enough serum for all the doctor is forced into choosing between saving himself or saving his patient, but his actions result in consequences unforeseen and defies the logical pattern of his sense of morality.
 
Summer Reverie dips into the infatuated psychology of a 17 year old youth, Shinichi, who finds himself drawn to his step mother, set on the coast of Izu, it has the feeling of the taiyo zoku although being brought more up to date and taken up a notch or two by degree. Shinichi looks up to Yukibe, a girl from his school who dropped out and is living on the streets and was involved in the student protests, he observes that, 'she is fighting against something. But I...', at night he fires his rifle, a gift from his father before he died, into the darkness of the sea. Between Shinichi and his step mother is her potential suitor, Takeda, a novelist who is staying in the house, his presence exacerbates Shinichi's temperament, whilst out swimming Shinichi gets caught in an undercurrent, before loosing consciousness he remembers seeing Takeda walking away leaving him to drown. In an erotic dream Shinichi dreams of his step mother naked and of him shooting her, a spot of red appearing on her chest where the bullet strikes which proves to be portentous. Although Nishimura's narratives feel in places quite plaintive, his stories explore the undersides of his character's psychologies and from them appear well crafted stories of the unexpected with turnabouts unforeseen.  
 
Two of the stories have narratives from detectives trying to solve their case, although at the same time Nishimura delves into the psychologies of both the criminals and detectives alike, especially in the final story entitled The Detective, where a six year old boy is reported as having committed suicide after swallowing rat poison, the child's mother is an aspiring actress and the case has ramifications for the detective's own history and echoes of the accidental death of his own son on the day that he and his wife separated. House of Cards follows a detective on the case of a murdered bar girl and a dissolute poet. The narrative in The Monkey That Clapped It's Hands comes from a journalist, Sawaki, investigating the suicide of a young man, Shinkichi, who had travelled from Hokkaido to Hokuriku for work, discovering that before his suicide Shinkichi had written three letters to three different people, Sawaki tracks out the three to find out if the contents of the letters will offer any clue for the motive of Shinkichi's suicide. The story has a soulful quality to it, reading like a distant portrait of a young man's dislocation from nature, from the rural to the city and subtle connections could be made between the wind up toy monkey at it's centre and the loneliness of the mannequin like life Shinkichi finds himself in. During his investigations Sawaki is accompanied by Shinkichi's mother, Toku whose grieving is subdued until the end of the story, the story turns over some subtle themes , the recruitment and assimilation of rural workers into the loneliness of city life, which also surfaces in another story, and also of the media's searching manipulation of the unfolding story to get a saleable angle on events, which again is a theme apparent that features in a number of the stories in this interesting collection.

The Isle of South Kamui and Other Stories at Thames River Press
 
          

Monday, June 9, 2014

Last Words From Montmartre - Qiu Miaojin





 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


 
 
 Reading Last Words from Montmartre has been a profound experience, although an epistolary novel in it's presentation, Qiu directs us at the beginning that we can read the letters in any sequence, over varying perspectives it begins to become difficult to separate the voice of the author with that of the novel's narrator, in relation to Japanese literary terms perhaps it wouldn't be far off in likening it to being in the style of a Watakushi shōsetsu. this is the impression I have after reading it. Situated in Paris the setting does switch at times, to Taipei then to Tokyo, briefly to London?, like Qiu herself the narrator is fascinated with Dazai, Mishima and other Japanese authors are referenced, Abe Kobo, Murakami Haruki as well as the films of Theodoros Angelopoulous and briefly the sculptor Paul Landowski. Initially the letters explain a break up between the narrator and Xu, her lover, the panoramic scope of vision of the narrative spins around glimpsing lives of those in proximity to the narrator, the central point of the narrative shifts, so an uncertainty remains, although fragmentary it's lucidity is piercing, it's intimacy and honesty unflinching, it's poignancy totally disarming. The novel is translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich who also gives an afterword which gives a sociological and historical background to the literary scene in Taiwan leading up to the book's first publication in 1996, the year after Qiu Miaojin's suicide in Paris.

Undoubtedly Last Words From Montmartre is a novel that will attract a great deal of discussion, I'm still reeling from reading it, and at the moment all I feel I could say about it would be in some ways to reiterate the description of it over at it's page at nyrb, so for now I'll just redirect you there and recommend the book without reservation, hopefully I'll be more articulate after reading Notes of A Crocodile, which was awarded a posthumous China Times Honorary Prize for Literature in 1995, and is also forthcoming from nyrb in a translation by Bonnie Huie, an excerpt and introduction of which is available via Kyoto Journal, but no doubt Last Words of Montmartre will be re-read before that time. Finishing his afterword Ari Larissa Heinrich observes that 'Perhaps no writer since Mishima has so mercilessly ripped the mask off the writer's true self.', it's really difficult to disagree, a landmark and monumental book.

Last Words from Montmartre at nyrb

at amazon

  

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Miner - Natsume Sōseki


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
 
 
 
Kōfu/The Miner first appeared in serialization in 1908 in the pages of the Asahi Shimbun, the narration is from a nineteen year old youth who after being caught between two women, Tsuyako and Sumie, finds himself wandering out of Tokyo through a forest of endless pine trees with the looming intention of throwing himself into a crater at Mt. Asama, or alternatively off Kegon Falls, in his afterword Jay Rubin mentions of the true character whose story Sōseki used as source material for aspects of the book, reading this is in some ways to be reminded of Kusamakura and of Fujimura Misao, finishing The Miner reiterates the hope for an explorative biography of Sōseki which would shed further insights into the stories behind his novels. In some descriptions of The Miner the book has been described as a precursor to Beckett and Joyce including sections which incorporate a stream of conscious style, this is probably mostly evident in the first two thirds of the book, although the reflective nature of the narrator's thoughts are never distant from the course of his describing the unfolding events of the novel, some of these reflections concern his evolving consciousness of his place in society, or more broadly the nature and follies of man, many of these instances of reflection here project over a number of pages and are prompted in a number of differing ways and scenarios, the line of a mountain that dissolves and blurs with that of the sky, the narrator observes that he finds himself in an 'out of focus world', a moment disembarking from a train, another theme that appears in the novel, reiterated by the narrator is the notion of the undefinable character of man and of the concluding observation that there is nothing more unreliable than man.

In some ways it feels that The Miner could be in part a bildungsroman due to the young age of the narrator, there is a sense we're sharing his rite of passage, early in the novel he reveals the fact that his period at the mine was only temporary, so the narrative comes partially from a perspective of hindsight, another aspect that remains slightly obscure is the nature and true scenario of his problem with the two women, Tsuyako and Sumie, it feels very much that perhaps he is the guilty party. In his afterword Jay Rubin observes that there were two Sōseki's, one humorous, the other an intellectual tragedian, and there is a little of both to be found in The Miner, perhaps more of the latter with an added percentage of being of a philosophical and sociological enquiry, with an emphasis on the absurd, it feels a little incredulous to contemplate that this translation has just passed being over a quarter of century old, there is the inclusion of phrases like; highfalutin, and in another scene where the boss of the mine, Mr Hara, instructs the narrator's guide, Hatsu, when after returning with the narrator from a tour of the dark depths of the mine, to sit down and 'take a load off', it feels slightly difficult to reconcile these phrases to a novel from 1908, Rubin's afterword and notes throughout the text remain greatly enlightening and informative.

It's tempting to read The Miner with the idea that  Sōseki is using the mine as a metaphor as the narrator explores his thoughts about the meaning of his existence and future, it feels like we are briefly visiting a darker or baser denizen of humanity amongst the squalid conditions and ways of the miners, another aspect is of the narrator's metropolitan background experiencing for the first time the provincial life, in some ways this is a common scenario that appears in a number of other of Sōseki's novels, of the main character or protagonist relating their experiences when travelling to a new location or surrounding, it occurs in Botchan and also in Sanshiro. Reading The Miner is to be reminded that although there are a number of similar themes usually running through Sōseki's novels, the narrative styles used in his novels are markedly different, in his introduction to Light and Dark John Nathan observes of the scale of interiority that the novel incorporates, but there remains a feeling that in The Miner that this is more so, it feels that The Miner is more allegorical than metaphor in parts it feels like it could be veering into a Kafkaesque landscape, the mine, it appears could be viewed as Sōseki's Vor dem Gesetz/Before the Law, the narrator can't move forward until he has journeyed through the darkness of the mine, there is a hybrid of different motives to his narrative, a sense that the narrator is assuaging his guilt and of his on going interpretation of the nature of the world at large, but the novel offers no redemptive quality, the narrator does not turn to the mine as an alternative to suicide, it's not until he encounters an older miner in the darkness, Yasu, when he becomes lost after Hatsu, his guide, scurries away from him that his thoughts begin to formulate into a concrete coherent course of action. In Yasu, the narrator sees a projected mirror image of himself older, one learnt from experience, Yasu too had come from a comfortable and educated Tokyo family and with a crime in his past a feeling that he is unable to leave the mine and the fate he has chosen, the narrator contemplates Yasu and the possibility of his sacrificed future in the outside world - 'Had society killed Yasu, or had Yasu done something that society could not forgive?'. Yasu offers to pay the narrator's return fare to Tokyo, but the narrator is reprieved from working in the depths of the mine due to a slight of fate, already we know from earlier in the novel that he won't spend the rest of his days at the mine, reading Sōseki often feels like experiencing the narrative unroll perhaps as in a modern emakimono.

Another more experimental aspect of this novel which surfaces from time to time is the narrator's scepticism of the literary worthiness of the events occurring in the novel, this also overspills in relating aspects of the literary worthiness of his own character and actions, and by turns in an equal number of places he expresses his scepticism with learned academia, which he often sees as expressing itself with a lot of 'hot air', was this perhaps included in reaction to the disdain Sōseki received after choosing to give up his university post and write for the Asahi?. In some ways it's none too surprising to see how The Miner is one of Murakami Haruki's favourite novels, as literary worthiness, (or junbungaku-ness?), appears to be a bone of contention that many critics often level with Murakami's writing, much of Rubin's afterword is taken up discussing the criticism levelled at Sōseki's writings at the time of their appearance. As 2016 and then 2017 approaches no doubt hopefully this will see an increase of interest in Sōseki, perhaps this too will also see an increase with the availability of all of his works.

  

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Kanai-kun - Matsumoto Taiyo/Tanikawa Shuntaro

  
Recently stumbled upon this collaboration between Tanikawa Shuntaro and Matsumoto Taiyo published back in January by Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun, needless to say I'd very much like a copy.
 
More information at the publisher. (includes a video walk through of the exhibition with Matsumoto). and more
 
the book at Amazon
 
only a few days left to catch the exhibition, if you happen to be in the area, via TAB

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Kiss of Fire by Masako Togawa


 
Sometime ago I read and enjoyed Togawa's The Master Key which won the Edogawa Rampo Award way back in 1962, recently a copy of A Kiss Of Fire came my way and the jacket art alone grabbed my attention, although unfortunately I can't see mention of the artist's name anywhere, which is a shame, the book, Hi no seppun was translated by Simon Grove and published in the U.K by Chatto and Windus and previously in the U.S by Dodd, Mead and Company. A Kiss of Fire is a novel that's slightly difficult to fit into any one genre, perhaps it could be best described as an off kilter crime novel, something that I remember from reading The Master Key is of the originally inventive twists and turns Togawa incorporates into her storytelling. At it's beginning three boys witness a fire that kills an aspiring painter, when interviewed the boys claim that they saw a man shaped like a bat who breathed fire ascending the stairs of the building, one of the three boys was the painter's son. After this introductory opening, which sets up the preliminary scenario the novel accelerates forward twenty six years later revisiting the lives of the three boys whose lives have each gone their separate ways, until that is until a spate of arsonist attacks. Ikuo is now a fireman pursuing the elusive arsonist, but in the process he becomes so embroiled he becomes a suspect as his ID and wallet are discovered in the stomach of a lion who falls victim to the arsonists flames. Ryosaku is now a detective who is also on the arson case, in the process he becomes involved with Ikuo's girlfriend Chieko, finally of the three boys is the painter's son Michitaro who has become a director of the family's insurance company. Under chapters named The Fireman, The Detective, The Arsonist, Togawa begins to put the pieces together, at first each of the characters are unaware that they are the three friends who in their youths witnessed the fire that killed Michitaro's father.
 
Over this progressing narrative it becomes slowly more clearer as to who the arsonist is, or so we think, in the meantime Ikuo has self doubts that he might be the arsonist, as an actress he has an affair with is killed by an arson attack, and a pair of jogging shoes linking him to her incriminates him to the degree that he remains suspect number one, but as Ryosaku points out as Ikuo was under police surveillance he is ruled out as a suspect. A clue that begins to emerge is that of something seen by Ikuo in the fire twenty six years previously, running up to the second floor Ikuo had caught Michitaro's father in a compromising position with a young nurse. The story is full of some interesting side plots and arresting motifs that at first seem to sit out of place with the rest of the advancing story, of a local temple where Michitaro's grandmother visits and places a sutra, and of stone effigies that resemble dogs or lions, these things Ryosaku picks up on in the course of his investigations, the temple is also fighting a neighbouring development to turn land adjacent to the temple into apartments. A motif that appears as details of the scenario of the original fire unfold is that of a dog with a burning tail used as a fuse to light the fire, another trigger of a fire later in the book is that of a crystal ball placed in a window to magnify the rising sun's rays to ignite the flames.
 
The deeper mystery of the novel is the reason or motive of the attacks, the main options are that it could be to cover up the escalation of a sham insurance claim linking back to the death of the lion which was secretly highly insured, another is that the arsonist was carrying out his crimes to satiate an almost orgasmic thrill he got when starting fires, or another path begins to lead to Michitaro's grandmother whose husband started the insurance company wanting to avenge the death of her son, the painter, Togawa's great ability is to draw this picture that links each of these different paths so closely together that it's left only to the final stage of the book for all to be made clear. Towards the end of the novel Michitaro is at the centre of a kidnapping plot, in the name of the book Togawa uses it in relation to the dangerous attraction of fire and also of it being utilised as an instrument of vengeance, another imaginative motif that that appears in the novel is the bundle of burnt matches used in the original fire preserved by Michitaro's grandmother as a strange slightly macabre momentum. The novel does show it's age in a number of places, (in one scene I think Ryosaku is described as wearing a 'safari' suit), although this does add to the flavour of the novel and it seems more erotically charged than I remember The Master Key being, but I enjoyed this greatly for Togawa's originality and inventiveness.      
 
As well as her writing Masako Togawa is also known as a chanson singer and also as a writer for television and for her many appearances on television. Aside from The Master Key and A Kiss of Fire another two novels have been translated Slow Fuse and The Lady Killer which won the Naoki Prize, although I think they are all currently out of print it would be great to see these reappear with a reissue.   
 
Masako Togawa's entry on Wikipedia
 
for a glimpse of the jacket art - A Kiss of Fire at Library Thing
 
Hi no seppun at Amazon.jp
       

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Light and Dark: A Novel

 
 

Light and Dark is a novel to be best read with the phone off the hook and the internet left unconnected, in this new translation by John Nathan it comes in a page shy of 420, originally published in 188 instalments in 1916 of the Tokyo and Osaka editions of the Asahi Shinbun,  Sōseki passed away before being able to finish it, although on his desk was left the blank paper with the number for instalment number 189 written in and waiting to be filled. As with all unfinished novels the mystery hangs over what was meant to be, reading the book feels slightly akin of finding oneself within a confined space but with the added dimension of the door being left open at one end. John Nathan in his introduction points out that in it's incompleteness it is complete, everything we need to know is there in what we have, perhaps it brings to mind the conundrum that faces all artists of when is their painting actually complete?. Perhaps it could also be said that with Light and Dark you could approach a reading of it with these two perspectives in mind, one of it being presented as a novel and secondly of the original appearing in instalments, of the events arriving sequentially. Columbia University Press have presented a fantastically produced edition of the book with the original illustrations from Natori Shunsen, a master of yakusha-e, heading each of the numbered instalments and when slipping the book's jacket off, the hardcover comes with an illustrated embossed cover and the page cut comes deckle edged, it's a handsomely produced edition to behold.

At the centre of Light and Dark is Tsuda and O'Nobu, newly wedded, Tsuda being slightly the eldest, they are still dependant financially on monthly contributions from Tsuda's father in Kyoto, which at the beginning of the novel begins to cease being paid, perhaps this is a possible punishment for past deeds?. Reading Light and Dark is no small commitment on the reader's behalf, it is a substantial read, being more lengthy than I Am A Cat, whilst reading invariably the mind turns to contemplate Sōseki writing it in his state of deteriorating health and of also noting at the same time some aspects and familiar motifs associated with the author that occur within the text, in one scene a visit to London is recalled,and dotted through the book are occasional references to Chinese poetry and proverbs, in another brief and fleeting scene the ethics of Naturalism are shown to be ineffectual, added to this Tsuda suffers from stomach lesions for which he his operated upon. Much of the drama of the novel is mainly passed through few characters, the character that appears to receive most of the attention and study is Tsuda who spends most of the novel recuperating from his operation, whilst in bed he receives visits from among others Kobayashi, who is imminently departing for Korea, Kobayashi is a man, although they may have shared a friendship in the past, is in ways the antithesis of Tsuda, towards the end of the book there is a showdown between the two where the men vent their scorn toward each other and their different senses of morality, throughout the book Kobayashi has held the upper hand to Tsuda's assumed respectability as he knows an episode from Tsuda's past which he threatens to relate to O'Nobu, it comes down to a question of money, where again Kobayashi is again unable to resist from exacerbating and demonstrating Tsuda's moral bereftness, it could be said that Kobayashi is testing out elements of the moral pretensions of the day, it's left to us whose right holds out. Throughout the book the reader's sense of empathy shifts between Tsuda and O'Nobu, (as it does more subtly between Tsuda and Kobayashi), a subplot earlier in the book is the possibility of a miai in the family and this provokes O'Nobu to revaluate her marriage compatibility with Tsuda, who by turns we get the impression has had his hand slightly forced into the marriage, the interplay of these considerations on their parts it could be said is back dropped by the world of stifled conventions that have no interest in real or true desires.

Across its panoramic vision it could be said that Light and Dark is a novel of varying contrasts, the title is one that rather being represented in any one scene, (among these ones which we are left with), but one that is hinted to in a number of scenes of one being thematic, throughout these we're reminded of Sōseki's interest in Buddhist thinking and of life's continual dualism, as seen in Uncle Fujii's theories on male and female relationships, in which moments of enlightenment are reached and constitute a larger circle of harmony then disharmony, rather pointedly O'Nobu criticizes Fujii by admonishing him, 'You're so long winded Uncle'. The secret in Tsuda's past withheld from O'Nobu is also something described as being something kept in the dark, these contrasts can also be seen when Madam Yoshikawa visits Tsuda and discussing Kiyoko-san she asks him 'I imagine you still have feelings for Kiyoko-san?', he replies with 'Do I appear to have feelings?' Madam Yoshikawa replies with, 'For just that reason. Because they don't appear'. Reading Sōseki there's always a sense of drifting between worlds, Meiji into Taisho, which also enables to step out and transcend the age of their setting. An aspect that imbues his work is a sense of the organic that filters through, there's  almost an utter lack of pretension in his characters which impresses them and their predicaments into the reader's sphere of empathy, and although he was tackling contemporary issues of his day there's a feeling in his writing that despite all being impermanent he sees things from the fixed point of the heart, through all it's wanderings, be they through the labyrinth of corridors of a distant onsen, of the opposing predicaments of love and then to end on the enigma of a smile.

 

Light and Dark at Columbia University Press     
 


Monday, May 5, 2014

Granta 127: Japan

 
Granta 127: Japan is now out and launches tomorrow at the Free Word Centre in London, a number of extracts and translators notes are available to read at Granta online, as well as additional pieces in full, including Hush ...Hush Sweet Charlotte by Kazushige Abe in a translation from Michael Emmerich. Very much looking forward to reading this. 
 





Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Decoded A Novel by Mai Jia

 
 
One of the initial things that interested me about Decoded is that it is published by Allen Lane, something which is quite unusual as the imprint usually only publishes non-fiction, at first I thought it could have perhaps been a book that had strayed over from the popular science bays, looking further it also seems that another novel by Mai Jia, In the Dark, (which won Jia the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2008), is due to be published in June, early information available about the book mentions that it'll feature one of the same settings as Decoded, (Unit 701), I'm looking forward to reading In the Dark, which is interestingly described as being structured as a filing cabinet. Another aspect about Decoded that caught my attention when browsing it is that it comes with a recommendation from filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, this was enough of a poke in the ribs for me to read further. Decoded opens in the style of being a family chronicle  before taking it's time to settle into focusing on it's main character - Jinzhen, who also is given the nick name of Zhendi by his adoptive sister and before this earlier in the novel he is also referred to as Duckling, the time period that the novel is situated in begins sometime prior to the war's beginning and goes on into the middle of the end of the last century. The family who acts as Jinzhen's adoptive family are the Rong's, a prosperous family of Tongzhen, this journey of his adoption is in places a complex one, but Jinzhen as a youth is primarily looked after by a foreigner - Mr Auslander, in his early years there are tell tale signs of his fascination with mathematics and numbers and after Mr Auslander's passing, Jinzhen spends his time working on calculating the exact number of days Mr Auslander had been alive as a slightly moving testament to his former adoptive parent, the initial figure is revised many times after the realization of his not factoring in leap years, but Jinzhen takes working out the equation to an even more precise degree.
 
Another foreigner that features in Jinzhen's life is Professor Jan Liseiwicz who teaches at N University who comes to realize Jinzhen's mathematical talent. The construction of the narrative is subtly crafted, at times as we follow Jinzhen's progress it can feel that we are traversing a rather narrow corridor with him as the novel explores the psychology of his genius and his rather enigmatic appearances to those that encounter him, largely Jinzhen leads a solitary existence, spending most of his time playing different variants of chess with Jan Liseiwicz, that is until Zheng the Gimp turns up. Not much is known about Zheng the Gimp, (his nickname is given to him due to his gait), it's known that he has connections or works for people in high office, he arrives at the university to scout for those who show a talent for mathematics, eventually he hears of Jinzhen and after a piece of enigmatic organising takes Jingzhen to a remote camp to work in code breaking. Rather than being a straight forward telling, Mai Jia incorporates a number of different techniques to relate the unfolding action of the novel with different perspectives, as the narrative progresses it becomes apparent that it has a journalistic and investigative tone, events are also told via interviews through people at the periphery of Jinzhen's story. At the edges of Jinzhen's progress we receive episodes from history reminding us of the external context, the Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, and at the same time there is the enigma of Jan Liseiwicz's true identity, a subplot to Jan's character is his pursuit of research into Artificial Intelligence and the advance in computer technology.
 
Whilst in the camp Jingzhen is put to decoding a notoriously difficult cipher called Purple and when he does crack it his status is elevated to being that of a national hero, which affords him to being able to intercede when his family is accused of being counter revolutionaries, people are stunned when he turns up back at his home town with all the power and authority that his position carries. Jinzhen's time within the camp seems to pass surreally, decades slip by while he works away trying to decipher another cryptic code this time called Black, but this proves to be harder than deciphering Purple, and on a return trip from a convention fate intercedes in the shape of a thief which sets Jinzhen's path on a different direction altogether. The novel has been described by some as being meta-fiction which I feel slightly uncertain about, but Mai Jia's approach to the structuring of Decoded is subtly original and inventive, in places the explorative tone in the narrator's investigations takes on being a mission in ascertaining truth between the speculative, at times reminding me of the narrator of Laurent Binet's, HHhH, it becomes apparent that perhaps Jinzhen's name comes to us as an alias, the line between what we know and what we don't begins to thin out, but what comes clear is a tale of the misappropriation of genius and it's devastating consequences. In Mai Jia's prose there is a fine balance between the understated and the explicit, and as he has described his writing is not what has come to be taken for granted as being stereotypical espionage writing.          
 
Decoded at Penguin
 
video of Mai Jia discussing Decoded and his writing
 
Decoded is translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne