Saturday, 18 August 2001

John le Carré: The Russia House (1989)

Edition: Coronet, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 914

Perestroika must have come as something of a shock to the writers who had been making a living from the Cold War, just as it seems to have done to Western secret services. Obviously, to some extent, the process was basically cosmetic, but at least the Russian authorities had admitted there was a problem, which is more than the British government, now one of the most secretive in the world, has ever done.

The Russia House is le Carré's first novel set in this period when the Cold War was beginning to thaw, and it is characterised by the attitude of most of the characters, who would prefer to hold on to the relative certainties of the past.

The central character, Barley Blair, runs a London publishing house which prints Russian fiction. At a party in Russia, he says something which impresses a man known as Goethe; a scientist working in the Russian missile programme, he chooses to betray to the world the chronic problems of their defence systems, and he prepares a manuscript he believes that Blair will publish to the world.

Because Blair doesn't appear at the next British Council book fair in Moscow, the manuscript goes astray and ends up in the hands of British Intelligence. They begin a major operation, recruiting a reluctant Blair to return to Russia and work with Goethe's chosen courier, with whom he falls in love.

The story is supposedly narrated by a disillusioned lawyer in the secret service, but in many places scenes are filled out with detail de Palfrey could not have known at the time and was unlikely to ever find out. Clearly his sympathy lies with Goethe and Blair, but he is unable to act. The story is not in le Carré's usual style; the feeling that something sordid is going on, which is common to most of le Carré's writing and which would seem to be particularly appropriate here, is missing. This, if deliberate, is a clever touch.

Le Carré obviously hadn't at this point quite decided how he would respond to the changes in Russia, and The Russia House is, as a result, not among his very best work. On the other hand, it is one of his most readable novels and is probably the one which fits easiest within the traditions of the thriller genre.

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