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.

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Pub Date: June 9, 1989

ISBN: 0141196351

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 27, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1989

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