The Uncensored Book of the Chinese Spy Who Knew Too Much

Mai Jia (pseudonym of Jiang Benhu) is one of China’s most influential, widely read and award-winning authors.

It took a while, but Mai Jia (pseudonym of Jiang Benhu), one of the most influential, read and awarded authors in China, was translated in Brazil. Twenty years late, his most famous novel, 2002, translated into 33 languages, the cryptographerarrives at Brazilian bookstores this month through Companhia das Letras.

Transposed directly from the original language, the work is one of the best-selling books in China in these two decades. And it consecrated its author with the most important literary awards in his country. Three of the five novels he published have been made into television series and movies in recent years.

Jia is often cited as the creator of a genre that combines espionage, code-breaking, politics, historical fiction and metafiction – several passages bring supposed “real” transcripts of testimonies of characters collected by him, as if it were a biographical report.

The first question that may come to the reader is: in a country where censorship strictly controls intellectual production, how was such a thorny topic as espionage allowed? There is no record that the cryptographer has been modified or mutilated. In addition to the plot taking place before Mao’s socialist revolution of 1949, another apparent explanation becomes clear as you read on. The author is a former spy agent or former intelligence officer fully aligned with the so-called communist regime that governs China.

millennial culture

Don’t expect a breathtaking adventure like Ian Fleming did with his English agent 007 from the first paragraph of each adventure. At least in the initial part. In the first seven chapters, he makes an extensive recollection of eight generations of a family, the Lillies, marked by tragedies and genetic anomalies and mysticism, until reaching a bastard descendant who becomes the protagonist of the plot, with unusual intelligence for calculations. mathematicians and dream interpretation.

His name was “Little Thing” until he was renamed Rong Jinzhen after being adopted by distant relatives who study mathematics at an unnamed Chinese university and is soon recognized for his prowess in calculations. Taken to the University, Rong became a protege of a Polish visiting professor, impressed by his brilliant mind that encouraged him to study artificial intelligence.

After the master left China, the young man was recruited by a government agent looking for the smartest students for Unit 701, a government agency dedicated to cryptography. It all happened during the Japanese occupation of China. The hero infiltrated the Japanese ranks as a spy. Early on, he broke the purple cipher code and became obsessed with doing the same with the black cipher.

In addition to this work, he has been involved in counterintelligence operations and garbled messages that excite the corridors of intelligence agencies. In a final attempt to unmask the Chinese spy, the Japanese began sending false messages. And then came the suspense that was whether Rong would be deceived. After becoming China’s greatest and most celebrated cryptographer, he made a mistake that started his downfall, in a succession of events marked by mystery and madness.

literary strength

the cryptographer stands out for its unforgettable and moving narrative about human brilliance, insanity and frailty, as some critics have claimed. It is also a mixture of historical saga and mathematical puzzles that, somehow, come together in a narrative of literary strength that impresses. From the beginning, there is a succession of absurd and almost always comical situations of singular characters that give pleasure to reading.

In 2017, when the book came out in the UK, the The Daily Telegraph described it as one of the twenty best spy novels of all time. THE The New York Times rated it as “a page-turner”, one of those that the reader cannot put down, with “an exciting plot, supernatural aura and extravagant details”. THE The Guardian called the book “skillful in its exploration of the world of mathematics and cryptography”. To the The Economist, it was “a great Chinese novel”. Similar criticisms came out in the Financial Times (“Fully original”) and in the South China Morning Post.

In fact, the novel deserves praise mainly for its antihero characters from a time of frailty and ruthless conservative habits. Jia writes with humor and lightness, in a style influenced by western entertainment literature, but about a country that dates back to the beginnings of the first civilizations, with its habits a traditionalist and oppressive time, as in the part of women’s education. “She was born with a big, round head and what she had inside was definitely not an ordinary marrow, but a phenomenal intellect, rarely seen in a woman,” writes the author.


The cryptographer, Mai Jia
Translation: Amilton Reis and Sun Lidong
Number of pages: 336
Price: BRL 99.90 / e-book: 44.9
Publisher: Companhia das Letras

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