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Fiction reviews


John le Carre - The Russia House

13 August 1989

The Russia House
John le Carre
Hodder & Stoughton

Published in The Australian

The 58-year-old John le Carre squeezes what may be the last drop of blood from the Cold War, in this beautifully written fantasy of glasnost era espionage. It is the story of the alcoholic, down-at-heel British publisher 'Barley' Blair. Barley is chosen by Yakov, a brilliant, erratic Russian scientist, to pass on details of the USSR's nuclear arsenal to the West. The clincher, Yakov promises, will be proof that the Soviet nuclear armory is outdated, unreliable and inaccurate: that 'the Russian knight is dying in his armour'. British and American Intelligence naturally just about wet themselves when they learn of the offer. They grill Barley extensively, 'educate' him, then send him off to Moscow to meet the idealistic Yakov, and extract the promised data.

Le Carre takes some literary stereotypes, pulls an arm off here, and there retouches a face. His cleverly-drawn characters thus inhabit a kind of half-way world between cliche and realism - which is, I presume, just where he wants them. The obligatory dark-haired, deeply-troubled Russian beauty (Katya, Yakov's confidante) has children, is in her mid-thirties, and even 'makes a joke' occasionally. Yakov, the eccentric scientist, is also a fanatical political reformist. Barley himself is three parts Graham Greene (the laconic existential anti-hero on the path to redemption through love), and one part Raymond Chandler:

While he was with her, he would believe that north was south and babies grew on jacaranda trees.

Le Carre, master of the spy-thriller, here breathes new life into what is becoming - thanks to glasnost, and hacks like Jeffrey Archer - an increasingly tired genre. Perhaps the greatest strength of 'The Russia House' is its sheer detail: The hypotheses and counter-hypotheses as to whether Yakov, or even Barley, is a plant. The transatlantic personality conflicts. And, most convincingly perhaps, the interminable guessing games the spy services of East and West inflict on one another. These seem to boil down to: 'Have they done this to make us react as we are, or to make us think this is how they wanted us to react - thus impelling us to do the opposite?'

Barley is a man of different sides. For instance he has what John Mortimer describes as 'the English fear of making a scene' - at times to the point of obsequiousness. Then again, when his controls push him too far, he will lash out unexpectedly, fist-banging and ranting. He is alternately receptive and stubborn, patriotic and cynical. It all seems quite psychologically sound.

The book actually begins with another small-time publisher - the Polish Cockney, Niki Landau - whom you think is the main character until his abrupt disappearance at the end of chapter two. Niki is

a pushy, short-arsed Polish card and proud of it... He was Landau the undersized bedroom athlete, who wore raised heels to give his Slav body the English scale he admired, and ritzy suits that whistled 'here I am'.

Niki is the conduit for Yakov's tantalising early data, which is hidden in a 'novel' manuscript. (When Barley doesn't show up in Moscow at a British book fair, Niki promises Katya he will deliver the manuscript to him in London.)

As Barley takes over as central character, the story becomes imbued with a lyrical, whisky-flavoured melancholy. (Existential despairers - in books and life - never seem to know that alcohol is a depressant.) It isn't till Barley starts to fall in love with Katya that he goes off the grog, takes her on picnics, and plays joyfully with her children. As his salvation begins, America's promised nuclear advantage begins to slip. It's a scale of values one can't help but admire.

The story is narrated by the clerk-like Palfrey, a Government lawyer. Palfrey is never consulted on matters of substance, but ever-present to ensure laws, rules and secret transatlantic agreements are adhered to. Palfrey has a lover, Hannah, whom we never meet, but about whom he intrudes melancholy detail from time to time. This is chiefly along the lines of how she was an opportunity for happiness he had long since blown, in the course of duty to family, career and appearances. Hannah never comes alive at all, which seems strange - until you see that what le Carre is doing is contrasting Barley's actions toward Katya with Palfrey's toward Hannah. We don't need to see Hannah, really - just enough of Palfrey's failure.

Barley travels to Moscow to get the data from Yakov. The operation is monitored by a small battalion of men from the CIA and the Russia House (the British intelligence branch that monitors the USSR). Barley is wired for sound, as are the places he visits. Half the hospital cleaners, taxi drivers and pedestrians in Moscow seem to be local CIA recruits. Even his rural picnic is recorded from an Agency audio-visual van disguised as an old truck. The drama goes ahead a fragment at a time, as these very fine details are played out for our interest and amusement. The other thing that slows it all down, of course, is the chief sub-plot: Barley's growing love for Katya.

Barley's eventual choice is between plot and sub-plot, as it were: between patriotism and love, games and reality. In the end, as it becomes plain that the truth they seek through espionage is unknowable, and its war unwinnable, even Palfrey, the grey man from the Russia House, begins to cheer him on.

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