It is the third summer of perestroika. Niki Landau, philanderer and travelling rep attends the first Moscow audio fair. A beautiful young girl named Katya asks him to take a parcel to England. It is addressed to Barley Blair, a derelict publisher, jazz-player and drinker, and contains information held to be vital to the defence of the West.
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 Barley.
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- Olde Chapp”, Le Carré is the master linguist and overall word-smith. For most I expect this book is a tough slow 353 page read, but then some of us “old-school types” just love to be tried, and truly enjoy self-inflicted flagellation of the literary variety.
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.