It is the third summer of perestroika. Barley Blair, London publisher, receives a smuggled document from Moscow. It contains technical information of overwhelming importance. But is it genuine? Is the author genuine? A plant? A madman? Blair, jazz-loving, drink-marinated, dishevelled, is hardly to the taste of the spymasters, yet he has to be used - sent to the Soviet Union to make contact. Katya, the Moscow intermediary, is beautiful, thoughtful, equally sceptical of all state ideology. Together, as the safe clichés of hostility disintegrate, they may represent the future - an idea that is anathema to the entrenched espionage professionals on both sides. THE RUSSIA HOUSE: a spy story, a love story, and a fable for our time.
LeCarre clearly intends that we like Barley but not take him too seriously. The narration by a lawyer working for British intelligence is an interesting choice, giving us an insider with a limited POV. I think I would have enjoyed the book more had it been tightened up. The style is competent, limited by the narrator and the situation, and is a good fit for the plot.
Earlier this year I said of LeCarre's The Constant Gardener, " A good book but too long and slow for me to recommend it with any enthusiasm." My verdict on The Russia House is much the same.
Barley Blair is another of LeCarre's uncertain, awkward, vulnerable Brits led by a code of honor into the worst of troubles. It's perestroika in Russia and the ground is shifting under everyone, especially
If you seek non-stop spy genre action, this book is not for you! However if you seek a great yarn of intrigue and a wealth of conversational English of the upper crust variety, now mostly extinct, this book is the tops. For a“Jolly-Goood- showe-
The story just happens to catch the last fading moments of the “Cold War”. Gorbachev experimenting with “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” led to the final and complete collapse of the formidable massive Soviet Empire. Reagan be dammed! However the “action” of this book did not dwell on this break-up as it had not yet occurred. The story therefore just made it before the Iron curtain finally collapsed. Much intrigue and much tongue- in- cheek occurs as the UK learns to play second fiddle to the US CIA cum Military –Industrial complex and the forever secret ways of Langley.
Barley is the British operative who just happens to fall in love with his Russian contact and he is the central character that in-spite of his unbelievable demeanor becomes, “the perfect spy”.
Carré, the former great spy thriller prolific writer has topped himself.
Carré connoisseurs claim this to be his best ever work.
The first part of the story deals with the services attempts re-recruit Blair, he is reluctant, but has fallen under the charms of a Russian woman he met at a publishing bash in Moscow, who is the key to the source of the tantalising information. The Americans get involved working with the British in trying to ascertain the reliability of Blair and the information source. The British team full of characters, old hands in the world of spying, pitch in to work with the more professional American Team. Barley Blair likes a drink, in fact drinking gets him through much of his life, but he has charm and is intelligent enough to avoid obvious pit falls. Much of the early part of the book is conversations usually with or about Barley Blair and it is these conversation that provide a link to a narrative that drives the second part of the novel.
Le Carré makes his spies human, they are characters, not cogs in a machine. Probably the office clerks or the computer people do all the hard background and number crunching work, but we do not hear much about this. We understand that agents in the field play a dangerous game and that "Joes" (people controlled by the professionals) are in fear of their lives, but any violence or assassinations take place outside of the narrative. It is a novel that thrives on mystery, the dropping of clues as to who is reliable or who plays a better game. Office politics seems more dangerous than the actual spying; It's all a bit of a cuddle really, but I was happy to go along for the ride and so 3.5 stars.