THE RUSSIA HOUSE by John le Carré
Kirkus Star


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Does glasnost mean the Cold War is over? Le Carre, the ultimate chronicler of Cold War espionage, ponders that issue (and others) in an up-to-date spy fable: his drollest work thus far, his simplest plot by a long shot, and sturdy entertainment throughout--even if not in the same league with the Karla trilogy and other le Carre classics. British Intelligence has gotten hold of a manuscript smuggled out of Russia. Part of it consists of wild sociopolitical ramblings. But the other part provides full details on the USSR's most secret defense weaponry--which is apparently in utter shambles! Can the UK and US trust this data and proceed with grand-scale disarmament? To find out, the Brits recruit the left-wing London publisher Bartholomew "Barley" Scott Blair, who has been chosen--by the manuscript's author, a reclusive Soviet scientist nicknamed "Goethe"--to handle the book's publication in the West. Barley's mission is to rendezvous with Goethe in Russia, ask lots of questions, and evaluate whether he's for real. . .or just part of a KGB disinformation scheme. Barley--a gifted amateur jazz-sax player, a quasi-roue in late middle age--has few doubts about Goethe's sincerity; he shares, with increasing fervor, the scientist's Utopian dreams of nth-degree glasnost. But the mission is soon mired in complications: CIA interrogations (with lie-detector) of Barley; venal opposition from US defense-contractors; and Barley's intense--and dangerous--love for Goethe's friend Katya, the go-between for his USSR visits. Narrated by a Smiley-like consultant at British Intelligence, the story, unwinds in typical le Carre style (leisurely interrogations, oblique angles), but without the usual denseness. The book's more serious threads--debates on disarmament, Barley's embrace of world peace over the "chauvinist drumbeat," the love story--tend toward the obvious and the faintly preachy. Still, Barley is a grand, Dickensian creation, the ugly Americans are a richly diverting crew, and this is witty, shapely tale-spinning from a modern master.
Pub Date: June 9th, 1989
ISBN: 0141196351
Page count: 430pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1989


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