It is the height of the Second World War, and Japan rules over China. In the famously beautiful city of Hangzhou, a puppet government propped up by the Japanese is waging an underground war against the Communist resistance.
Late one night, under cover of darkness, three men and two women are escorted to an isolated mansion on the shores of West Lake. All five are intelligence officers, employed as codebreakers by the regime. But the secret police are certain that one of them is a communist spy. None of them are leaving until the traitor is unmasked.
It should be a straightforward case of sifting truth from lies. But as each codebreaker spins a story that proves their innocence, events are framed and re-framed, and what really happened is called into question again and again.
I am delighted to be opening the blog tour today for The Message by Mai Jin, with an exciting extract for you. My thanks to Martina Ticic from Midas PR for inviting me to take part in the tour.
The following day, just as the sun was rising and before the mists that veiled West Lake had dispersed, Commander Zhang’s black car was already bumping its way along the shoreside road.
Commander Zhang Yiting had been born into an ordinary family in Anhui province, but from a very early age it was clear that he was unusually intelligent. At eighteen he took first place in the provincial examinations for the imperial bureaucracy and seemed destined for a prestigious job in the civil service of the Qing dynasty. But, like a bolt from the blue, the Revolution of 1911 destroyed his dreams, and for many years afterwards nothing went right for him. He was ambitious to serve his country but condemned to remain on the sidelines. Too often he was treated with contempt by others; too often he found himself at the mercy of misfortunes he’d done nothing to deserve. This situation lasted until the Japanese installed their treasured collaborator Wang Jingwei in Nanjing. Only then, when Zhang Yiting was in his fifties, the hair at his temples already turning white, did his future began to look bright. He became Qian Huyi’s deputy: Vice-Commander of the ECCC.
But what kind of future lay in store for him? A year earlier, when he’d returned home to attend his mother’s funeral, one of the villagers had poured a bucket of shit over him. He was so furious that he grabbed a gun off a subordinate and fired at the villager. He didn’t kill him – the man just lost a bit of skin off his leg – but for Zhang Yiting this marked the end of an era. He understood that he would never be able to go home again, and he decided to carry on down the path he’d chosen with redoubled determination. So when his boss Qian Huyi was murdered and the rumours flying around were such that none of his colleagues dared step into the role, he accepted the promotion, exhibiting surprising courage and boldness.
That was almost a year ago now, and he’d never regretted his decision, not least because he had no other choice. Now, as he thought about all that had happened the previous night, and all that was about to happen at the Tan Estate, he had exactly the same feeling: he had no other choice.
The black car skirted the lake, followed the road up to the Tan Estate and after a few blasts on the horn came to a halt at a high wall. Sentries shouldering guns stood to attention outside the main gate and the guards ushered the Commander through. It was 7.30 a.m. – he had indeed come at the earliest possible opportunity.
Before him was a T-shaped grey-brick building with a black-tiled roof, very much in the traditional style, and a pretty but not at all practical grille door that was nowhere near high enough to stop a determined person from climbing over. It was here that the Tan family had quite brazenly installed a brothel. The sign that now hung over the door said it was an officers’ club, which was pretty much the same thing.
The car traced a circle round the large open space in front of the officers’ club and then turned right, in the direction of the rear courtyard. It drove through an area densely planted with phoenix-tail bamboo and on down a narrow road between stands of imperial zhennan trees. Commander Zhang caught a glimpse of the two buildings to the east and west, and then, as the car passed an ornate rockery overgrown with weeds and a wisteria-covered pergola, he saw that Secret-Police Chief Wang Tianxiang was waiting respectfully on the terrace of the western building.
Standing to attention behind the Police Chief was a sentry with a Mauser pistol at his hip, and behind the sentry was a wooden signboard, newly erected, which read: ‘Military Area. No Admittance for Unauthorized Personnel.’ There was also a freshly painted white line demarcating the area. This had all been put in place by Police Chief Wang during the night.
Since everyone had gone to bed very late the night before and hadn’t expected Commander Zhang to arrive so early, the five ECCC officers had all got up late. Indeed, Gu Xiaomeng was still in bed when he turned up. To have the Commander arrive at such an early hour was kind of flattering, but it brought home the seriousness of their mission. Even more so when they came out of the house to go to breakfast and saw the sentries standing to attention and the white line encircling the building.
If this has whetted your appetite and you would like to read the rest of the book, it is out now in hardback, ebook and audio formats and you can buy a copy here.
Please do make sure you check out the rest of the tour for reviews and more:
About the Author
Mai Jia’s first novel in English, Decoded, was published by Penguin Classics in 2002, and has been translated into over twenty languages. His novels have sold over 10 million copies and Mai Jia has won the Mao Dun Literature Prize, the highest literary honour in China. The Message was first published in 2007 and has sold over a million copies in China. Mai Jia was born in 1964 and spent many years in the Chinese intelligence services.