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The Russia House

July 18, 2009

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War presented Spy fiction writers with something of a dilemma. The intricacies of espionage could no longer be rendered concisely in a narrative of East and West, Communism and Capitalism. Spy novelists found their books dated and old-fashioned. One writer who was ahead of the curve in reinventing the genre was John Le Carre. The Russia House is LeCarre’s moving elegy to the traditional spy novel. Published in 1989 (although set in 1987 a clever device by LeCarre which ensured the story would not be overtaken by events) the plotting still carries the hallmarks of the mystery genre. Niki Landau is a rep for a British publisher on a visit to the Soviet Union when he is contacted by a beautiful mysterious Russian woman named Katya. She claims to be carrying a manuscript written by a friend Yakov that needs to be urgently delivered to Landau’s boss, the jazz-loving, heavy drinker Barley Blair. However, the manuscript is not the kind of material Barley is used to handling, it contains Soviet State secrets and Barley soon becomes a pawn in the hands of British and American Intelligence determined to exploit Katya and Yakov as part of their espionage game. But when Barley finds himself falling in love with Katya will his love of country hold firm?

LeCarre skilfully avoids the clichés of the Spy genre. This is a novel less concerned with double agents and secret microfilm than it is of the changes happening in Russia at the time. What makes the book such a pleasurable read is the portrayal of the lives of ordinary Russians living in the age of Glasnost and Perestroika. The scenes in which Barley is debating and drinking with his Russian friends are a delight to read. LeCarre personally observed these Russian traditions whilst doing research in the Soviet Union. He had been lobbying to visit the country for years, and the thawing of relations between East and West during the Gorbachev era gave him the opportunity. This level of research and attention to detail gives the novel its sense of realism.

The novel veers (somewhat untidily) between first and third person. The first person narration is by Harry Palfrey, a mid-level British civil servant who becomes one of Barley’s Intelligence handlers. Yet Palfrey is not central to the novel, like the other characters he is merely an observer to events bigger than himself. Palfrey only appears in certain scenes: his narration is conveyed through memory and what the principal characters have confided to him. This cast of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern figures is allegorical of the reader’s relationship with the major events of their own time. There are no heroes in LeCarre’s world. Spies are cuckolds, adulterers and divorcees. Indeed, Palfrey reappears in LeCarre’s later novel The Night Manager (1993) as a minor character who has completely given himself up to corruption. Those characters who do try to behave honourably often find themselves betrayed, alone and unable to reconnect with the innocent overt world which no longer exists for them. Anyone who has been following the bizarre and sad recent case of  the former MI5 whistleblower David Shayler, now a transvestite who thinks he is Jesus, would acknowledge that LeCarre’s portrayal of spying is in no way overblown or unrealistic. Human frailty is presented with sympathy and understanding. Indeed, it is often not the individuals who are at fault: their suffering is due to a malaise in national institutions. The manuscripts Barley and Katya are handling contain the biggest open secret of the age— The Soviet Union’s military and nuclear capacity is years behind American technology. But will the British and American Intelligence Services accept this inconvenient truth or is it in fact a ruse by the Russians to spread disinformation? On a human level, it is Barley and Katya who pay the price for this complexity. The Russia House is a thoughtful and moving novel, and in retrospect it does not read much like a Spy novel at all.

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