Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Russia House (1989) by John le Carré

The Russia House was published by John le Carré in 1989. This post will consist of my summaries of the book's individual chapters.

FOR BOB GOTTLIEB, a great editor and a long-suffering friend.

"Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it."

-Dwight D. Eisenhower

"One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being."

-May Sarton


In a broad Moscow street not two hundred yards from the Leningrad station, on the upper floor of an ornate and hideous hotel built by Stalin in the style known to Muscovites as Empire During the Plague, the British Council's first ever audio fair for the teaching of the English language and the spread of British culture was grinding to its excruciating end. The time was half past five, the summer weather erratic. After fierce rain showers all day long, a false sunlight was blazing in the puddles and raising vapour from the pavements. Of the passers-by, the younger ones wore jeans and sneakers, but their elders were still huddled in their warms.

A first-person narrator, Harry (not his real name), is recalling his interviews with a man named Niki Landau, who is sitting at his stand at the audio fair when a Russian womman named Yekaterina "Katya" Orlova comes up to him asking, "Excuse me, sir. Are you the gentleman from Abercrombie & Blair?" He replies no, that this is the wrong stand, and that she's in fact looking for Scott "Barley" Blair. Landau tells her that Blair did not decide to "occupy his stand" at the fair, but that if she wants to give anything to Blair, she can give it to him and he can take it to Blair. To make sure the authorities don't see, Landau encourages her to act like she's kissing him while he smuggles a brown-paper parcel out of her bag and into his briefcase.

Losing interest in him, Katya gives Niki her business card.

She gave it to him, then walked stiffly down the pompous staircase, head up and one hand on the broad marble balustrade, the other hand trailing the perhaps-bag. The boys in leather jackets watched her all the way down to the hall. And Landau, while he popped the card into his top pocket with the half-dozen others he'd collected in the last two hours, saw them watch her and gave the boys a wink. And the boys after due reflection winked back at him, because this was a new season of openness when a pair of good Russian hips could be acknowledged for what they were, even to a foreigner.

At his hotel, Landau looks at the notebooks inside the parcel, and is appalled. One section reads:

"The American strategists can sleep in peace. Their nightmares cannot be realised. The Soviet knight is dying inside his armour. He is a secondary power like you British. He can start a war but cannot continue one and cannot win one. Believe me."

Landau realizes that this makes Blair a spy. Nevertheless, he decides he'll deliver the notebooks anyway, which Harry finds startling.

How he sees me, if he ever thinks of me, I dare not wonder. Hannah, whom I loved but failed, would have no doubt at all. "As another of those Englishmen with hope in their faces and none in their hearts," she would say, flushing with anger. For I am afraid she says whatever comes to her these days. Much of her old forbearance is gone.


The whole of Whitehall was agreed that no story should ever begin that way again.

Landau pays a visit to the Russia House, where his briefcase is checked but the guards are not suspicious of the notebooks inside. Pleading an interview with a member of the British Intelligence Branch, he is met by Palmer Wellow, to whom he gives the notebooks. Palmer gives word of the notebooks to his colleague, Ned, who received word of them at the Russia House, his "stubby brick-out station in Victoria."

Ned sets up a meeting with Landau. When Landau starts asking questions about Barley and inquiring if he is alright, Ned quietly replies, "We never mention names like that, Niki... Not even among ourselves. You couldn't know, so you've done nothing wrong. Just please don't do it again... And yes, he's alright."

Landau is then questioned by and an East Coast American, "Johnny." They are suspicious of some angry telephone calls he's had with a woman named Lydia, and of his meeting at the audio fair with Katya, whom he claims was wearing a blue dress and a wedding ring, and - judging by the size of her hips - is probably a mother of children, too.

Yet again Johnny was at his telegrams. "You say that Yekaterina Borisovn Orlova referred to the adjoining stand of Abercrombie & Blair as having been empty on the previous day, correct?"
"I do say so, yes."
"But you didn't see her the day before? Is that also correct?"
"It is."
"You also say that you have an eye for a pretty lady."
"I do, thank you, and may it long remain vigilant."
"Don't you think you should have noticed her then?"
"I do sometimes miss one," Landau confessed, colouring again. "If my back is turned, if I am bent over a desk or relieving myself in the toilet, it is possible my attention may flag for a moment."

Over the days that follow, throughout interview after interview Landau develops "movie" fantasies about how the Service might be planning to make him a spy, like Barley. But he is then delivered to a Whitehall ministry where he walks into a great room full of a row of men, headed by a younger, sharp-suited man named Clive. Sitting with him are others, one of them being Old Palfrey, aka Harry. Clive introduces Landau to the men, then gets to the point:

"You've done a good job but we can't tell you why it's good, because that would be insecure," Clive continued in his arid voice when Landau was comfortably settled. "Even the little you know is too much. And we can't let you wander around Eastern Europe with our secrets in your head. It's too dangerous. For you and the people involved. So while you've performed a valuable service for us, you've also become a serious worry. If this were wartime, we could lock you up or shoot you or something. But it isn't, not officially."

Harry is then assigned to be Landau's Legal Adviser. As a happy result, Landau's video shop flourishes.

Above all, we were able to love him, because he saw us as we wished to be seen, as the omniscient, capable and heroic custodians of our great nation's inner health. It was a view of us that Barley never quite seemed able to share - any more, I have to say, than Hannah could, though she only knew it from the outside, as the place to which she could not follow me, as the shrine of ultimate compromise and therefore, in her unrelenting view, despair.

"They are definitely not the cure, Palfrey," she had told me only a few weeks before, when for some reason I was trying to extol the Service. "And they sound to *me* more likely to be the disease."


Barley is tracked down at a bar by "a fat boy of thirty" named Merridew, who has been following him for awhile now. British Intelligence has found out that Barley's connections include "a sister in Hove who despaired of him, tradesmen in Hampstead who were writing to him, a married daughter in Grantham who adored him and a grey-wolf son in the City who was so withdrawn he might have taken a vow of silence."

While Barley is drunkenly chatting with "Gravey" in the bar, Merridew introduces himself to him as a Commercial Second Secretary from the Embassy, telling him, "We've received a rather pressing telegram for you over our link. We think you should pop round and read it straight away. Would you mind.?" Then Merridew cups his hand over his head - as if to straighten his hair - which alarms Barley; as le Carre puts it, "this large gesture, performed by a fat man in a low room, seemed to raise fears in Barley that might otherwise have slumbered, for he became disconcertingly sober."

After some struggling, Merridew finally convinces Barley to come with him. During the car ride, Barley demands, "Are you the people who've been snooping round my daughter, asking her a lot of stupid questions?" to which Merridew insists it couldn't be them because they're too "commercial" for that. Sound they arrive at rented town house, and inside, Barley is introduced to Ned in an indoor library.

"How drunk are you?" Ned asked, lowering his voice and handing Barley a glass of iced water.
"Not," said Barley. "Who's hijacking me? What goes on?"
"My name's Ned. I'm about to move the goalposts. There's no telegram, no crisis in your affairs beyond the usual. No one's being hijacked. I'm from British Intelligence. So are the people waiting for you next door. You once applied to join us. Now's your chance to help."

Although Barley insists he knows nothing, and is suspicious about the place, Ned tells him the place is owned by the Ambassador, and proves it by letting Barley call the Ambassador from Ned's directory and asking him about when is the best time to play golf - as Ned correctly predicts, the Ambassador is engaged until 5:00. This proves to Barley that this whole thing isn't a joke.

Ned introduces Barley to Clive, Walter, Bob and Harry (Bob is a CIA agent with a Boston accent). Barley quips, "So where are we off to? Nicaragua? Chile? Salvador? Iran? If you want a Third World leader assassinated, I'm your man." Clive is not amused ("Don't rant,"), and tries to get Barley to sign an Official Secrets Act, but he refuses. They interrogate Barley further.

"Why didn't you got to Moscow?" Clive asked without waiting any longer for Barley to settle. "You were expected. You rented a stand, booked your flight and your hotel. But you didn't show up and you haven't paid. You came to Lisbon with a woman instead. Why?"
"Would you rather I came here with a man?" Barley asked. "What's it got to do with you and the CIA whether I came here with a woman or a Muscovy duck?"

They find out that the reason Barley has been so reckless in London lately (including leaving behind "trails of weeping mistresses") is because he "inherited a romantic list" and hated publishing romantic literature. He claims it's a family tradition of writing "novels for the housemaid" that he's getting rather tired of, but that his family shareholders (i.e. his aunts) won't let him publish anything else. He didn't show up at the audio fair because they wouldn't let him go into the business of audio cassettes.

They show him Katya's letter. He claims ignorance to the handwriting and to its author, saying the only Russian woman he's ever had close contact with was an "old cow in Aurora" who tries to sell him some Russian paintings. They then make Barley read the letter out loud, and he does.

"My beloved Barley." He tilted the letter and began again. "My beloved Barley, Do you remember a promise you made to me one night in Peredelkino as we lay on the verandah of our friends' dacha and recited to each other the poetry of a great Russian mystic who loved England? You swore to me that you would always prefer humanity to nations and that when the day came you would act like a decent human being."
He had stopped again.
"Is none of that true?" said Clive."
"I told you. I never met the hag!"
There was a force in Barley's denial that was not there before. He was shoving back something that was threatening him.
"So now I am asking you to redeem your promise, though not in the way we might have imagined that night when we agreed to become lovers.""Total balls," he muttered. "Silly cow's got it all mixed up. "I ask you to show this book to English people who think as we do. Publish it for me, using the arguments you expressed with so much fire. Show it to your scientists and artists and intelligentsia and tell them it is the first stone of a great avalanche and they must throw the next stone for themselves. Tell them that with the new openness we can move together to destroy the destruction and castrate the monster we have created. Ask them which is more dangerous to mankind: to conform like a slave or resist like a man? Act like a decent human being, Barley. I love Herzen's England and you."

Barley demands to see the book. They tell him it's in a safe place. He claims it's his right to see it: "I've been charged with it. You saw what he wrote. I'm his publisher. It's mine. You've know right to it." His use of the word "he" confuses them. He demands to see the book, but Harry tells him the book has been classified as top secret. Barley then pours himself a glass of Scotch from the drinks table, "all within a couple of inches' range of a microphone that Brock with his characteristic over-production had concealed in one of the richly carved compartments."

in Chapter 5...

"I suppose you realize that if you do walk out on Goethe you'll be leaving him to the Americans?" said Ned, on a practical point of information. "Bob won't let him go, why should he? Don't be fooled by those old Yalie manners of his. How will you live with yourself then?"
"I don't want to live with myself," said Barley. "I can't think of anybody worse to live with."

After Barley embarks on his mission, Ned and Brock search his Hampstead flat for clues of his ties to Goethe/Katya. They find a notebook with a Stevie Smith quote:

"I am not so afraid of the dark knight
As the friends I do not know..."

Ned finds, on the back of one of Barley's bills thrown in the trash, a quote by Roethke:

"I learn by going where I have to go."

in Chapter 10... (after Barley has made the publishing deal with Goethe and gotten drunk)

But as Wicklow patiently hauled him up to bed the undrunk part of Barley glanced over his shoulder, down the wide staircase. And in the darkness near the entrance, he saw Katya, seated with her legs crossed, her perhaps-bag on her lap. She was wearing a pinched black jacket. A white silk scarf was knotted under her chin, and her face was pressed towards him with that tense smile she had, sad and hopeful, open to love.

But as his gaze cleared her he saw her say something saucy out of the corner of her mouth to the porter, and he realised she was just another Leningrad tart looking for a trick.


Palfrey goes to visit Barley when he finds out where he is. Barley is isolated from his aunts and his publishing company now, living alone and painting his house walls, sad about the fact that he'll probably never see Katya or her kids ever again.

She'll come, he told me as he gazed out at the harbour. They promised one day she would come.

Not at once, and in their time, not in Barley's. But she would come, he had no doubt. Maybe this year, maybe next, he said. But something inside the mountainous bureaucratic Russian belly would heave and give birth to a mouse of compassion. He had no doubt of it. It would be gradual but it would happen. They had promised him.

"They don't break their promises," he assured me, and in the face of such trust it would have been churlish in me to contradict him. But something else was preventing me from voicing my customary scepticism. It was Hannah again. I felt she was begging me to let him live with his humanity, even if I had destroyed hers. "You think people never change because you don't," she had once said to me. "You only feel safe when you're disenchanted."

...And he talked. For me. For him. Talked and talked. He told me the story as I have tried to tell it to you here, from his side as well as ours. He went on talking till it was light, and when I left at five in the morning, he was wondering whether he might as well finish that bit of wall before turning in. There was a lot to get ready, he explained. Carpets. Curtains. Bookshelves.

"It's going to be all right, Harry," he assured me as he showed me off the premises. "Tell them that."

Spying is waiting.

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