For the past 30 years, British spy novelist John le Carré has thrilled readers with his intricately plotted, psychologically complex novels. As a Cold War laureate and self-described “exspook” himself, with service in his country’s Foreign Office, le Carré has vividly depicted the clandestine netherworld of double agents, terrorists and cloak-and-dagger intrigue. Now, le Carré has released his 12th novel, The Russia House, a lean, gripping saga of tension, suspicion and redemption set against the Soviet Union’s era of glasnost and perestroika. According to the author, its reception rivals that which greeted his first hit novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, when it came out in 1963. The new novel has already topped U.S. best-seller lists just three weeks after publication. Meanwhile, a film adaptation, written by British playwright Tom Stoppard and directed by Australian Fred Schepisi, is about to begin production in Leningrad—another first for le Carré. Sean Connery, famous for his portrayal of Ian Fleming’s secret agent James Bond, is one of the actors being considered for the lead.
The Russia House, set in 1987, tells the story of mutual distrust in the post-Cold War era. At Moscow’s first audio fair for the teaching of the English language, a beautiful and mysterious woman named Katya Orlova gives three notebooks to a naive British salesman. The notebooks contain secret diagrams and information alleging that Soviet telemetry is
ineffective and that its missiles pose no threat to the West. “The American strategists can sleep in peace,” reads a message. “Their nightmares cannot be realized. The Soviet knight is dying inside his armor.” Orlova asks the salesman to pass them on to Barley Blair, a world-weary, saxophone-playing British publisher and reluctant spy. The notebooks are the work of a Soviet physicist named Goethe (codenamed Bluebird). The action begins when the notebooks land in the hands of British intelligence. Like the real-life suspicion surrounding glasnost, Bluebird’s motives come under scrutiny. Is this information real or a setup to create false scrutiny? If he is genuine, what consequences will his revelation have for the military-industrial complex?
Like le Carré’s best works, including A Perfect Spy, his autobiographical novel, The Russia House is spiked with wry, ironic and funny observations. It also contains the author’s recurring themes of the struggle between the individual and the institutional collective conscience as well as the conflict between thought and action. And his characters still distrust authority: just as Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold hates ideologists, who he believes will trigger the end of the world, Goethe hates experts. “When the world is destroyed,” Goethe says, “it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats.”
But The Russia House is also structurally
simpler, more optimistic and more romantic than such earlier le Carré works as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. He deals with the theme of redemption through love. And while visiting Toronto last week for a rare speaking engagement, the 57-year-old le Carré—whose real name is David Cornwell— admitted to Maclean’s that he feels freer after exorcising the memory of his father in the cathartic A Perfect Spy. He says that his optimism comes from his two 1987 trips to the Soviet Union and his discovery of how “things are amazingly visible.” During his visits, he met with physicist Andrei Sakharov—then a dissident, now a member of the new Soviet I parliament—and members of the Writers’
0Union and toured the Library of Foreign Litert ature in Moscow. But le Carré declined to meet
1 with British spy Kim Philby, who defected to I the Soviet Union in 1963, because he said that I he was thoroughly disgusted with Philby’s
Having seen the reality of the Soviet Union, le Carré says that he has greater affection and respect for the Soviet people, and that he is convinced that diplomatic and cultural ties should be strengthened. Politically, he says, current events sound the death knell for communism. Added the author: “What has happened is that the seemingly endless deep freeze of the Cold War stopped. We as a public have had a taste of the possibility.” Declared le Carré: “Even if they shoot Gorbachev and every progressive in the Soviet Union tomorrow, we know that out there somewhere is the possibility of reconciliation on a grand scale. The reality is within our grasp.”
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