Mai Jia’s The Message, which is just out in the UK in paperback through Head of Zeus, has sat very patiently on my to-read pile for much of the year, and finally reached the top just before Christmas which, predictably, added about a dozen new books to that pile.
I’d been looking forward to it all year – I’d written before about how much I’m enjoying the Chinese genre fiction now getting translated, and Mai Jia is a leading spy thriller writer and former spy himself, managing to be both fantastically popular and a Mao Dun prize winner. Spy fiction – particularly with a cryptographic bent – is absolutely my bag. The Message is, I think, his third novel available in translation after Decoded and The Plot, and their translator Olivia Milburn of Seoul National University does the honours here again.
It’s new in translation but it’s not a new book – it was completed and released in China in 2007, with revisions in 2013. A film, which I’ve not seen, was released in 2009.
Plotwise we seem to be in classic territory – it’s a hunt to find a mole named Ghost with five suspects. We’re placed straight into the action, by Nanjing’s West Lake in a former brothel now spy headquarters, with the five suspects lured there and a molehunter wheedling away as best he can. So far, so Tinker Tailor and that… well that’s the initial problem for me.
Shortly after starting the book the news of fellow spy-turned-spy-novelist John le Carré’s death broke, and I couldn’t shake the spectre of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. What a magnificent book Tinker Tailor is – complex, thrilling, subtle, human, tense. For the first half of the book The Message has some enjoyable trickery and tradecraft, but it’s none of those things – in particular it’s not as human as I wanted. It felt more like a game; I didn’t feel the characters’ backgrounds, motivations, lives and passions. I know it’s not fair to compare, nor to review a book I wished I’d read rather than the one I did read, but The Message is no Tinker Tailor.
The ‘human’ aspect was really bugging me throughout; I never really felt I was living or experiencing the characters, just being told how they felt; even the West Lake setting isn’t really developed, with the descriptions more Lonely Planet than Bai Juyi. But also the set-up really surprised me – we’re in the midst of the Sino-Japanese war, but we’re not with the Communists or the Nationalists, we’re with the occupying Japanese and the puppet regime. That was very unexpected for me. Somehow the logic of the genre is upside down – we’re with Colonel Hihara and his collaborators as he tricks, interrogates, tortures and murders his way to discovering the Communist mole. For someone who enjoys a bit of cryptography it’s a surprisingly unimportant plot feature – it’s all more brutal than I expected (that said, I’m delighted that I now know how Morse Code works in Chinese). I found the writing very objective, simple and dispassionate; Mai Jia just tells the story. Every now and then we get a few paragraphs from the unidentified Ghost’s perspective but it feels quite perfunctory. Mai Jia doesn’t really run with the multiple perspectives. It means that while the translation is efficient, it doesn’t really get to sing either.
Right then, every day felt like a year to Ghost. As the minutes ticked by, so Ghost’s chances of keeping K and the others safe trickled away. Ghost was trapped, unable to do a thing about it. Outside the window there was the sky, and from time to time a sentry passed in complete silence, but in Ghost’s heart there was only darkness and despair.
And then, only halfway through, the mystery is over – we know the mole, and the story ends. It comes as a shock, particularly when you’re holding a physical book only half completed, but also because, well, it turns out the mystery wasn’t very complex or satisfying. But then the metanarrative begins. For the second half we’re joining the Author as he investigates the events we’ve just read about by speaking to one of the ‘real life’ characters and the relatives of others. I put ‘real life’ in inverted commas – Mai Jia presents them as real, as well as some of the other characters such as Colonel Hihara. Hihara gets a full chapter about his very credible life, including a close friendship with Akutagawa. I’m still not entirely sure that Hihara really is fictional, and can’t quite bring myself to Google it.
I was willing to buy into this, but others might not. It felt gently experimental, and allowed Mai to cast doubt on the narrative we’d just read and explore some of the fictional and duplicitous elements, playing with what is ‘fake’ and what is ‘real’ (假作真時真亦假 y’all), as well as fleshing out the narrative and some of the characters’ more human sides. On reflection I can’t say it’s a successful experiment – it’s admirable, but really I would prefer a 400 page spy thriller to focus on weaving an intricate narrative web with real fleshed out characters rather than play with me in this way. You know, like Le Carré (sorry).