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The Russia House by John le Carre--A Review

The Russia House is a love story wrapped in a spy story. The love story is somewhat less convincing than the spy story, but more compelling. Le Carre is a strong storyteller nonetheless, achieving vivid atmospheric effects (Moscow, London, an island off the coast of Maine, Leningrad) and driving scenes forward with deft, spirited dialogue. The peculiar satisfaction of the book lies in the main character, Barley, shaking off the chains he's been wrapped in by the British and American intelligence agencies, so that he can set his Russian lover free--from her own doomed Russian lover and the claws of the dying Soviet state.Less satisfying is the appeal Barley exerts over Katya, his Russian co-conspirator. After all, he is a man who customarily drinks ten plus glasses of scotch a day. This qualifies as an alcoholic, and in my experience, heavy-duty alcoholics are not as charming as they think they are. Inevitably, a spy thriller published in 1989 will seem dated, but this one, based on revelations about the rottenness of the Soviet state, must have seemed quite clairvoyant. At the time of its release, the USSR was, in fact, crumbling under the weight of its inefficiencies. The spycraft and tediously restrained spymasters are realistic--human beings constrained by their bureaucratic procedures, yearning to be impetuous (like Barley) but not daring to be, yearning to chuck their marriages and run off with an exotic lover, but not daring to do so.

Viewed as a study in international relations, The Russia House is a parable about the futility of the arms race between two superpowers whose competition gave them a poisoned taste of global greatness they couldn't spit out to save their souls. Viewed as a study in human relations, the book is thinner but entertaining. Le Carre writes with spirit, pace, and detailed knowledge of his settings. But I still have a problem with Barley the Boozer ending up with his intriguing Russian amour.