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The Russia House (2004)

The Russia House (2004)

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3.87 of 5 Votes: 4
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0743464664 (ISBN13: 9780743464666)

About book The Russia House (2004)

Kevin Myers reviewed The Russia House on In Communist Russia, Spy Novel Reads YOU! by Kevin MyersEver since the Winter Olympics in Sochi and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I’ve become fascinated once again with the Russian people and culture. I was just a kid when The Russia House by John le Carré was published. I don’t remember it, but I do recall Ronald Reagan’s “”evil empire” speech. I remember Rocky IV, Russkies, Red Dawn, and The Police singing about “Russians.” We Americans have been conditioned to distrust Russia in the modern age, and not for nothing. But looking east now, as an adult, I wondered if the great spy novels from the 80s still held up. You know what? They do. They absolutely do. Even though it was written when glasnost was thawing Russo-American relations and Gorbachev was opening the USSR, The Russia House is a super-cool Russian spy novel that still seems relevant today.In this story, Barley, an English publishing executive, receives a manuscript at a trade show in Moscow from Katya, a Russian editor who fearfully tells him it contains anti-USSR material written by an important Russian scientist. She begs him to take the manuscript to England and give it to the right people there. He does, and what ensues is a cat-and-mouse game between MI6’s Russia House (a small British spy unit focused on Russian intelligence) and the KGB. Our narrator is Palfrey, a member of the Russia House, and he relates the capers between Barley, Katya, and Palfrey’s agency staff as they try to uncover the meaning of the damning manuscript.What I love about this book is that there are no cell phones, and no Internet to rely on. It’s just spies relying on human interaction, covert and overt meetings, landline telephones, and desperate physical work to get that coveted knowledge. How can we communicate to younger readers that the age of the Internet makes knowledge so incredibly easy to find today compared to only 20–30 years ago? Chasing a few facts or stories is much easier nowadays for regular folks, but can you imagine how spies did it without all this electronic connection a mere generation ago?There’s real tension in these pages as Barley tries to uncover what exactly Katya knows, or doesn’t know. Her contacts, his superiors, and their budding romance complicate everyone’s efforts to know what the hell’s going on. The images of racing through bleak Moscow streets and buildings, the paranoia of feeling like you’re being watched, believing that the whole of civilization rests on what you reveal and what you withhold . . . it’s fantastic.For me, modern spy novels feel so far-fetched. This book made me remember why spy novels can be so outstanding. The Russia House didn’t need modern spy equipment and smartphones to dazzle me. It just relies on my own fears, indoctrinated or instinctive.

This is a good, solid Le Carre, but as is often the case, the novel needed editing. The story concerns a Soviet physicist with information that Soviet nuclear technology is less advanced than the world thinks, who communicates this information through a manuscript that he asks a friend, Katya, to pass on to a British publisher, Scott Blair ("Barley"). British intelligence intercepts it, and then recruits Barley to go back to Moscow and try to recruit the scientist to find out more Soviet secrets. Things, as usual, don't go exactly according to plan, and as frequently happens with Le Carre, there is some strident, over-the-top moralizing about the importance of being a decent human being and so on as opposed to following bureaucratic rules and regulations.It's a fun, pleasantly complex story, and the writing is often brilliantly witty, especially in the beginning when Le Carre really gets going in describing and mocking the intelligence folks. The relationship portrayed between the British and the American intelligence community is hilarious and probably revealing. Barley is also a great, world-weary, charismatic character, and Katya is amusingly Russian, prone to complaining in an understated way about poor state services ("It is not convenient"). Problems include the cliched narrator who serves no purpose--Le Carre has to have his old, depressed, lovesick man watching and telling the story. This is common to many of his novels, and it gets "old" as they say. He's often musing about his love for some woman lost, Hannah. This interrupts the flow of the narrative, and is quite pointless. There's also a heavy-handedness, again a common Le Carre problem, a certain naive smugness that can get on the reader's nerves, the main lesson seeming to be, "If only everyone could behave like decent human beings." And then, there are very long interludes that repeat the same essential points and jokes, which should have been edited down. But, still fun, esp. if you like Le Carre. And, the movie is surprisingly good--Sean Connery as Barley, Michelle Pfeiffer as a shockingly good Katya.

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Colour, jazz, bravery, love and light feature in this book. On the face of it this is a spy story, but the spies simply manipulate ordinary people who are driven by passions: the Russian scientist with secrets to impart, his ex lover who is the go between, the Jazz loving tenor sax playing book publisher who having drifted in life suddenly finds a new purpose. Is this worth reading? Yes: John le Carré writes from a detached point of view, and the tone of the book is one of surveillance. You are reminded that 'the last photo we have on file is...’ or 'on the tapes the microphone picked up his heart beat'. What it does do though is question the competency of the intelligence services, the in-fighting, the politicking, the guesses and hard decisions that have to be made, and the chess that is played using people as pieces, and the emotional attachment / detachment that comes from such.

this is a spy novel set at the end of the cold war and beginning of perestroika . it is brilliant on the grey men in the intelligence services and their thought processes and on the smoke and mirrors of spying and trust . the world weary conclusion , that the bluff and counterbluff between Russia and the West were essentially empty , seems to ring true .the scenes in Russia were great , although the Ruskies seemed a little bit stereotyped or perhaps absolutely everyone there really drinks and is soulful . i was not totally convinced how Barley Blair was turned from shambolic freewheeling publisher into a dedicated and focussed spy nor for the basis of his love for Katya for whom he turned sides but i suppose Le Carre deals in small triumphs in an imperfect world .

I had difficulty at first with the main character. He was an unlikely spy, recruited first unwittingly by the KGB's disinformation agency, then by British intelligence, then the CIA. A book publisher with failed marriages, a drinking problem, a womanizer who used women and then discarded them, a businessman who operated his publishing house in the red. You might say, a loser who becomes everyone's pawn. I had difficulty becoming invested in the story until about page 95, mostly because I found the main character not likeable. Barley seemed to morph before me as someone who was looking for a reason to be noble, and then later, betrayed his country to save someone whom he grew to love with a purity and selflessness he had never known before.Enter the beautiful Katya, a Russian beauty who Barley falls in love with, and gives everything in exchange for here life, and the lives of her family. It is a novel of politics, the world and workings of spies in the period of perestroika and glasnost, in a nervous world of a crumbling Soviet Union, in a dangerous age of nuclear weapons. The credentials of the author, having once being in British Intelligence himself, lent authenticity and credibility to the tale. The grasp of the politics of the day and the authentic use of the places and culture plays well to the story. The book was often hard to follow, probably because there were so many characters on the British Intelligence side, it was difficult to see individual characters as unique due to their number. Also I was often confused by the use of the first person narrative of which I was never quite sure the identity of that person. The book's ending was a surprise to me.I would give this three and a half stars but this is not possible, and it seems a shame to give it three.It is, and entertaining read.
—Morris Graham

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