This review of The 'Russia House' by John Le Carre' was originally published on Amazon.com on March 28, 2013
John Le Carre's 'The Russia House', published 24 years ago, is perhaps the last of his cold war novels. As the story unfolds, Gorbachev is in power, Perestroika and Glasnost are on everyone's lips, Reagan and Thatcher are running the West, and American power is in ascendancy. The old Communist states are seen as ripe for Western business. A minor player in British publishing, at a book fair in Moscow, receives an unsolicited manuscript - really a set of notebooks - that he is told will change the world. He is made to promise he will give the notebooks to someone else, who he knows vaguely, but when that man can't be found - he turns it over to the British spies at Whitehall. From there the espionage machinery starts to turn and we watch the lives of those involved unravel.
In his long career, that all his reader's pray is still a work in progress, LeCarre' wrote mostly about three things: The Cold War, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle (and its loose corollary the "War on Terror"), and Africa. Yes, there are some that don't fit this categorization -such as 'The Tailor of Panama', which was his most comic work, as well an early look at George Smiley and his life in a murder who-done-it - 'A Murder of Quality' - works which are harder to categorize.
Since 'The Russia House' falls into the first category, the Cold War, this review will focus on that side of LeCarre's fiction. To split it further, I think his vision of the Cold War is divided into two phases - The first phase - which includes 'Call for the Dead', 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' and the 'Karla Trilogy' and the second phase where I see LeCarre's doubts about the morality, honesty and utility of the West's espionage efforts begin to dominate his narrative. This second phase includes of all of the rest of the Cold War novels, 'Absolute Friends', 'Single & Single', 'A Perfect Spy', 'The Secret Pilgrim' (his last Smiley novel) and 'The Russia House'. I think these two phases reveal something about LeCarre's view of history, which seems to have changed considerably and perhaps embittered him to what has become of his old profession in when he worked in MI-6.
Of course why wouldn't his view change? He has lived and written for a long time. His career covers so long a stretch that, the premise of any bureaucracy during such a long period would begin run its course and lose its mandate. Consider the movies that were made from his books. Richard Burton, Oskar Werner and Clare Bloom starred in '...from the Cold' while the stars of the new version of 'Tinker Tailor ...' were Colin Firth, (who was in nappies when the first LeCarre' movie was made) and Tom Hardy (wouldn't be born for more than a decade). There is no question that LeCarre understood the moral ambiguity of spying back in the early 60's - he invented the concept. He broke new ground and was criticized by conservatives at the time for seeming to draw a moral equivalence between spies on each side of the Iron Curtain. But he had the 'good guys' apologetically win even if it meant them enacting some very diabolical double crossing to get the victory. He left little doubt that that was for the best no matter how dirty it left all concerned.
But by the end of his Cold War phase, his message had changed. Part of it was the ascendency of the Americans in the Intelligence world. The British had always held the upper hand in the realm of human intelligence. They were closer to the action across the channel and they had generations of training in international business and as colonial administrators. But in the 80's, a new kind of intelligence came to the fore - technical intelligence, satellite imaging, data that measured missile accuracy and the stealthy nature of radio signaling and interception. Computers held the files, not library stacks. This began to drain the blood out of the trade, and gave rise to a new kind of spy which had the Americans managing the controls.
Le Carre' was born in 1931 and came of age before 1956 - when the British Empire was toppled by Dwight Eisenhower over the Suez crisis, just as he toppled the French empire by letting the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu two years previously. Young men of his age and class, were taught a certain style and savoir faire that lent him much of the material for his characterizations. He has talked about his own father's past as a con man, whose criminal activity afforded his own training in the British 'public schools', and in Bern studying Foreign languages, an unusual up-bringing which might have given him the stealthy personality needed for espionage, as he illustrated in 'A Perfect Spy'. This time, place and circumstance connects him to Kipling and Orwell as well as to Conrad and John Buchan. He is only separated from the 'Great Game' by a generation or so, and sees the world through the eyes of men who heroically struggled for some greater good of God and Queen. On some level he hates it, but it is part of him and he knows it is part of him. He was weaned by men who remember the great days of Bletchley Park, of the British Intelligence owning the Nazis out right through the Enigma Machine and connection to Admiral Canaris - doing it with the old boy network, where Cockney unreservedly served Cambridge, while maintaining a sharp pride and a disdainful sense of independence. The system worked because of an English social understanding that could never be duplicated through any bureaucratic institution. LeCarre' has always had it in for the Yanks, those descendents of the Puritans who were scandalized by the loose morals and lack of religious orthodoxy of the recently Catholic now Protestant Elizabethans and Stuarts.
"The Russia House" is a encomium to Russia or at least to its people. The heroes of the book are all Russian, from the scientist who gives them the notebooks to the woman who delivers it. The West has one hero, but he is ineffectual and in the end can't quite pull off what he promised to do. Nothing makes a good read like the story of a great villain. The Americans are the villains here, but unfortunately, like a well behaved boy longing for approval, they are not quite 'Great' villains. The Americans are bloodlessly unnoteworthy by every measure. Their resultant ruthlessness lacks any panache and is dulled by their buck-passing committees full of yes men. Even the KGB and the Russian spies are no longer as clever or brutal as in the old days. Hence the book isn't as thrilling as some of his previous work. Listen to this description of the Americans assigned to work with the Brits.
They wore navy blazers and short hair, and they had a Mormon cleanliness that I found slightly revolting. ... These dull, unfamiliar faces had no place at the heart of our operation, and at such a crucial moment. They were like a gathering of mourners in advance of an anticipated death ...
It is hard to feel much about such men.
The narrator of the tale, Palfrey, is a British lawyer who is there to put the legal approval on all of the operations from wiretapping, to creating the documents for the agents before they commence their operations that say they understand the penalties for revealing what they know - penalties forever enforceable, while of questionable legality. He too is a bloodless timeserver, only dreaming of his next assignation with Hannah, another man's wife, bogged down with a hopelessly rationalized guilt.
LeCarre' can't deliver what is no longer true. The great age of spying is over. Smiley is gone and there is no one to replace him, because no one could possible have Smiley's life experience. Some writers of 'international intrigue' still pretend James Bond is still at work, but when you read LeCarre', you know Bond never did exist. LeCarre' holds up a mirror to a world that is true and yet can be boring and routinized as the work-a-day world most of us inhabit, which is espionage. It is not the escapist fiction for which spy novels are noted. It demands the reader engage.
Spying is waiting. Spying is worrying.
The story is partially about waiting and worrying. Social receptions where no one says what they are thinking, drool quips that have lost their bite, drinking, and more waiting, more drinking and worrying.
The Brits made the initial intelligence score of Goethe the old fashion way - with luck and a sensitivity to human sources. But they almost blew it and because of poor handling in the beginning pretty much doomed it anyway. Niki Landau, a Polish-Jewish immigrant in the publishing trade is given the notebooks unsolicited, and told by the beautiful, (but not young or glamorous) Russian woman, Yekaterina (Katya) Orlov, who gave them to him insisting that they are to go to Barley, an acquaintance from a rival firm. Niki's past complicates things. He insists he is British first, then Polish and then anything else. He loves England and wants to be a British gentleman. But the Brits did less than he thought they should to get his sister out of Poland, so he is a little conflicted. He looks for Barley and finally goes to Whitehall to see if they know him. Because of his background , the Intel Brits in Whitehall put him through interrogation humiliation and so set up the coming disaster, by insisting that when they find Barley, he must work for them. You think - if only Smiley were still at the helm it would have been handled better. The old school has been dismissed. Smiley is gone and replaced by careerists and timeservers who have lost their will to protect their turf and more important - do the right thing. The American interlopers wait in the wings and the Brits get one chance to make the play themselves. They use the amateur Barley, (who the source insists is the only one he will deal with - based on a long ago drunken night of pledges of eternal dedication to friendship and peace) and a compliant publishing company to try and contact the mysterious 'Goethe', a shy scientist who might be the brains behind the Soviet Missile testing apparatus.
The 'MacGuffin' of the story is a book written by Goethe that purports to prove that the Soviet nuclear force was hollow, spent, unmaintained and unlikely to be anywhere near the threat assumed by Western Defense specialists. Barley, is the British "Joe" a drunken, divorced failure who never loses his unflappable cheerful British exterior, a cool hand on the tenor sax, dealing out bon mots and jokes full of pith and wit, always hiding any doubt behind a jaunty exterior. He falls in love with Goethe's messenger and one time lover, Katya, a soulful, sincere practical mother of two. Love will conquer duty, but then Barley isn't a 'professional', so the Intel Brits seem to lose control of the situation. This will be the impetus to bring in the Americans.
There is a case to be made for LeCarre' as one of the premier novelists of the 20th century - or at least the last 50 years. Perhaps the best two reasons for this is longevity and the universal importance of his subject. From longevity we can measure and compare his view of history with what actually happened, and he clearly saw the end. His vision from his earliest novels fits and slides into what now seems like ancient history. Back then, he saw and showed us the weakness of the Soviets and also the strengths. Both help explain why Soviet Communism lasted so long and why it finally fell.
LeCarre's moral vision has been clear and consistent even if how he applied it was not. There was an larger good that sometimes had to trump the 'smaller' human good - but that had its limits. When the larger good began to mean crushing innocent brave people in order to maintain an economic dominance - for Goethe's notebooks poised a great threat to the 'Military Industrial Complex' ( to use the phrase of perhaps the last President who was not a complete prisoner of it, Eisenhower), while for the rest of us they would have meant confronting the truth of what our society is really about.
From Richard Burton to Gary Oldman with Alec Guinness in the middle - LeCarre' has covered so many social attitudes and personal styles and political ideologies that it is amazing he remained so clear in his idea of what is truly important. In '..in from the Cold', when the Burton character Leamas sends Fiedler, (played by Oskar Werner), the decent Communist, to his death to protect the ex-Nazi monster Mundt, who had been turned by the Circus(obliquely again in the earlier novel 'Call for the Dead'), you can see the diabolical duplicity is at least recognizable human - blood is paid with blood. What the Americans do in "The Russia House" is bloodless and antiseptic. It is clean evil, and because of America's historical amnesia, it is nothing that ever threatens to bother anybody later on.
Smiley, (who may have pulled the trigger on Fiedler and Leamas, or maybe he was coerced by "Control" - LeCarre' leaves that open ...) is the the tortured soul of the espiocratic world, the epitome of conscience, yet he can lie to good men to send them to die to save the larger good. Smiley who spent the entire world war living in Germany as a spy, knows how to keep his head down and do what needs to be done for no reason other than duty.
The Karla trilogy, ("..Tinker Tailor..", "The Honourable Schoolboy", "Smiley's People") is the most remarkable set of connected novels written in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin Napoleanic sea stories. It is the great Cold War story, seemingly based on the real hunt for Kim Philby, the Soviet spy who penetrated the very highest levels of MI-6 during the post war and then escaped to live out his life in a musty Moscow flat. Karla is LeCarre's master Soviet spy who nurtures and handles the Philby-based spy, who is codenamed "Gerald".
The meticulous detail is a delight for the reader. LeCarre' depicts in the Karla Trilogy the old style for collating and intuiting information, or the lack of it, to, as we would say today, 'reverse engineer' to the source, to ultimately find the leaks that identify the mole in the circus. His character, the filing room fixture Connie Sachs called it 'taking back bearings' which is an old surveying term to see where you are, based on where you have been. The description of the file rooms and the methods for organizing them seems quaint when today it is about managing computer files and databases. "Janitors", (older semi-retired spies) sit at the entrance to the 'stacks', checking briefcases, and looking for signs that the rules are being ignored. No photo copiers, sometimes it all depends on memory and mnemonics and bold ruses to misdirect the janitors. Smiley's spies, who must spy on and deceive their own mole-controlled side, look for the little inconsistencies in the yellowing news clips and faded carbons.
I was a bureaucrat in my twenties, just in from the 'field', (I had been working on land surveying crews) helping manage an engineering office in a growing city's Public Works department. It was while working there that I discovered '..Tinker, Tailor..'. Our files had the same feel that the Circus' files had. We had scandals too, developers trying to sneak projects in without going through expensive review processes, using insiders from the various city departments to pad the files with backdated letters and memos illegibly signed. I was part of some of these snipe hunts, trying to ID the moles, mostly to protect myself if I were to be accused in the future. So I thought I understood the drama better than I would otherwise.
LeCarre's books have generated many movies and TV series, the most recent a new go at "..Tinker,Tailor.." with Gary Oldman as Smiley. It is about two hours and some minutes and so must compress the action. The story self-consciously avoids some of the signature scenes from the previous cover of the novel, the acknowledged masterpiece, the BBC adaption with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley. For example, Patrick Stewart, (Captain Picard) plays a younger Karla in the only meeting between him and Smiley. Set in an Indian jail in the mid-50s, Karla, in prison chains, impassively facing a sweating, feverish Smiley, is given a choice between returning to Moscow where execution seemed certain, or defecting. I have seen Stewart in many performances other than Star Trek and he is a great actor, (see him as Sejanus in the Derek Jacobi - BBC version of 'I Claudius'), but I have never seen him better than in that ten minute scene with Smiley. The thing is - he spoke not one word during the whole scene. Yet when it was over, you knew Karla.
LeCarre' doesn't portray many strong women in his Cold War novels. In "The Little Drummer Girl" Charlie, (played by Diane Keaton in the movie version) was a true main character, but wasn't a great character - she was weak, and easily manipulated. Ann Smiley was a sexually unencumbered upper class wife who Smiley loves through each of her infidelities, until the last one, which has world shaking consequences. His secondary characters are pretty interesting, such as Faun, his 'Factotum', lithe in tennis shoes, who kills with his bare hands and has Smiley's back on all of his dangerous rendezvous, and Rickie Tarr, a self-described hood, who has no compunction about any strong arming or wet work until he falls for a spurned Russian spy and is prepared to give up everything for her. And of course there is Roddy Martindale a quintessential Whitehall official, a gossipy queen who trades information in stuffy upscale men's clubs (where the silverware is polished but the food is appalling) innocently torturing Smiley with the latest gossip about his faithless wife. 'The Honourable School Boy' main character is Jerry Westerby, the classic old school charmer, whose honour Code is 19th century but whose outlook is bleak and modern. And of course his paper chaser, the drunken, fat, lesbian Connie Sachs, whose memory is prodigious and who sees connections that escape even Smiley.
The genius of the Karla Trilogy is that it educated us about what intelligence analysis was before the concept was overwhelmed by 'technical means'. Deception, leaking real intelligence to see what reaction it causes, all done to look for the slightest hint of the underlying capacities and intentions of the other side.
"The Russia House" was probably the last of the LeCarre Cold War novels, except for "The Secret Pilgrim" which is a charming set of funny and poignant back story vignettes told by a grandfatherly Smiley to the the new graduates of the British Spy "Nursery", known through all his novels as Sarratt. There is very little that is charming about "the Russia House" though.
As we said, it is the 1980s and the Soviets were still maintaining an inhuman apparatus of social and political control. But it's starting to fray. The German scientists who built their missile program were dying off and the Russians who have replaced them no longer believe in the rightness and inevitable triumph of their system. The Americans have had a rebirth of sorts - but it is an ugly baby. Reagan has released the Puritans, whose cold eyed, passionless, unquestioning operators had no connection to the previous OSS generation who had an esprit-de-corp that was at least comprehended, if snickered at, by their 'Cousins' in the 'Circus'. The old school had at least remembered that the Russians had been allies in the great events of their lives. They had been eclipse by a new breed, an arrogant group who saw no ambiguity in world and had little patience for the human cost of their work. The had become overlords rather than allies and the true enemy was becoming harder to distinguish.
Barley, the amateur spook who has returned to Moscow and is trying to re-contact Goethe and get the rest of his notebooks begins to see what the true stakes are in his quest. Goethe wants to avoid all of the 'Gray men', American or Russian, and go directly to the world by publishing his unedited notebooks and let the chips fall where they may. Slowly Barley begins to understand what Goethe clear sees, that the America establishment has as much, if not more, to lose if the world comes to realize that 'the Russian sword is rusted in its scabbard'. If the world knew that, then how could they generate the political will needed to drain American taxpayers for the endless stream of new weapons and systems that purport to protect us from annihilation?
'The Russia House' is one of LeCarre's bleakest tales. It has echos of '...in from the Cold' when Leamus and Liz Gold were left dead on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. But LeCarre' clearly saw the purpose to their deaths. The purpose for the tragedy in '...Russia House' is naked greed and power, nothing more. Wasn't it always though? Didn't we all have blinders on during the Cold War? Russia and the East was always different than we were, crueler perhaps, but it was their country and the limits of power were understood before World War II. Wasn't the whole thing a scam, perpetuated by a few to enrich and empower themselves? And if so, why did it take LeCarre' so long to write about it as such? The reason, I think is that he didn't think it was a scam. Most of us didn't back then, at least until Vietnam. But as the evidence came in, it is clear to me that LeCarre' changed his mind. That is a human thing to do and the one thing he was always true to was the human side of the spy game.
As a sixty some year old who has been reading LeCarre' since my twenties (and before that if you count the movies), I didn't question the validity of Smiley's quest, mostly because I felt a human connection to Smiley. I trusted Smiley and rooted for him to overcome the 'Gray men'. But he is gone and the Gray men triumphed as he knew they would. In 'The Russia House', the spies have weakened and are no longer honest with themselves, but still, I recognized myself in them. Smiley and his generation were different, we are less for it because they are gone, even if we see the world clearer now.