The Russia House by John le Carré

‘But where is Scott Blair? Where is the man they call Barley? I must speak to him. It is very urgent.’

In the late 1980s era of glasnost and perestroika, David Cornwell, alias John le Carré, finally received an invitation to visit the USSR. He had already been writing about its role in the Cold War for almost a quarter of a century and was reasonably well-known over there, even though most of his books were banned, and the rest were vilified:

[They told me that] The attacks had been a compliment to my writing. They validated me as a subject for coded dialogue between members of the Soviet intelligensia, all of whom, in one language or another would have had ‘priviliged access’ to my work.

Showing the lack of guile so typical of totalitarian regimes, Cornwell was followed, watched and tapped throughout his visit, providing plenty of source material for The Russia House, his 1989 novel. Arriving at a time when many people thought le Carré was finished, with the fall of communism making his subject matter redundant, he bounced back with this tale of a broken, drunken man and his divided loyalties.

Lecherous sales rep Niki Landau is approached by a mysterious woman called Katya while he is flogging books at an English Language Teaching book fair in Moscow. Katya is desperate to hand a manuscript to a publisher, Barley Blair. Unfortunately, Barley has failed to appear. Landau agrees to take the manuscript back to London, but before doing so, he hands it over to the UK’s spymasters. At that stage, all hell lets loose.

What he is carrying is a rambling manuscript split over three notebooks. It is the work of a dissisent intellectual, Goethe, who needs a Western publisher to print his book and get it into the hands of the world’s leaders. Goethe’s scribblings are nonsensical and unpublishable, but amidst all the dross is top secret information about the Soviet missile programme. The spooks’s tails are up.

However, Goethe will only work with Barley, a publisher that he once met at a boozy dinner party. Barley is a washed-up divorced alcoholic who has decamped to Portugal to escape the crumbling decline of his family publishing house. Utterly inappropriate to become one of the secret service’s ‘joes’, nevertheless he is the only one who can unlock Goethe’s secrets.

Long before Donald Rumsfeld coined the term, The Russia House is a tale of ‘known unknowns’. Nobody is sure what the other side knows, and is frantic to find out. Will the Soviet missile defence even work? Do the Americans realise the full extent of Soviet military weakness?

Every time the Westerners ask a question, they reveal something they don’t know to their Soviet rivals. Every word is precious. One slip could mean the other side wins far than more then they lose.

Barley is the contact point. Only he can meet Katya and Goethe to find out more. In doing so, he would be betraying Goethe’s trust. Goethe is obsessed with the Englishman publishing his book, so Barley must deceive him into thinking that this is a real possibility. Both Goethe and his ally Katya are betraying their country, but Barley has doubtful allegiances too.

The Russia House is a classic, a spy novel which is filled with menace without ever exploding into overt violence. Blair is le Carré’s best character since George Smiley, a man that keeps all of us guessing to the very end as to whose ‘joe’ he really is.