The Russia House
Russians have a saying that life is richer than any book can be. I have always found this ironic, since life in Russia tends to be dull and gray, notwithstanding the numerous bloodlettings in its history. If Russians have loved literature so passionately, it is perhaps because they have used it to forget themselves, to outwit the tedium of life. Today, however, I find much less irony in that silly saying, since I am writing about John le Carré’s new novel, The Russia House, in a country that has never fully come into being, a different Russia, which is now emerging, and whose future is still uncertain. And in its unique confusion of old and new, contemporary Russian life has a richness that seems to resist description.
Russia’s history has sadly stood apart from that of other countries because of its timeless nature, which has often entailed long periods of social stagnation. This stubborn historical condition has been stronger than any revolution in Russian history, including that of October 1917. To understand why the flowing Russian waters of time have tended to freeze into the ice of eternity requires a knowledge of the special quality of Russian civilization, which arose on the shoreless plain swept by Arctic winds, and in which the clash of elements from East and West has tended to weaken both, resulting in a state of lethargy that has endured for many centuries.
However they may occur, reawakenings from this lethargy are rare and shortlived in Russia, and, what is more, they tend to be unforeseeable and stormy. No one could have predicted the arrival of Alexander II, who was known to the people as the Tsar Liberator because he ended serfdom in 1861, or of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms are already considered to be on the same scale as those of 130 years ago. When we enter one of those rare periods when Russian time no longer runs according to the same old clock, how shall we write about it?
To do so requires either the boldness of ignorance or a precise knowledge of the clock’s mechanism. Otherwise, caught between the here and now and eternity, a book can die in a fraction of a second, and nothing can save it. Russian writers, suspecting the difficulty of grasping recent events, have deferred to foreigners on this matter. Le Carré, in setting his latest spy novel during the third year of perestroika, displays a fearlessness that seems to me to derive from genuine curiosity and concern rather than foolhardiness. But his attempt would not be worth discussing if his acute writer’s instinct had not given him insight into peculiarly Russian historical themes, which he has made central to his book.
I have in mind the episode in The Russia House in which a Soviet physicist nicknamed Goethe feels compelled to send military information to the West. This somewhat mysterious character keeps notebooks in which he demonstrates the weaknesses in the Soviet economy and the Soviet military, believing that by doing so he can convince the West of the futility of the arms race. Goethe hopes to pass this information on to the West through an English publisher, Barley Blair, whom he had once met on the outskirts of Moscow during an evening of drinking with other writers. Blair’s speeches that evening denouncing the cold war foolishness of both the Americans and the Russians had so impressed Goethe that he decided to have him circulate to the West the truth about the Soviet Union’s largely ineffectual nuclear forces. The novel centers around this act of idealistic betrayal conceived in the name of peace on earth, which evokes a storm of rumor and speculation from all the characters in the novel.
The book jumps back and forth between the Soviet Union and the West. The first half centers on the Western secret services, and in the second Barley is sent back to Moscow by the British intelligence, and has an affair with a beautiful Russian woman named Katya. Throughout, British and American agents debate among themselves Goethe’s motives for passing Soviet military information to the West. Indeed, much of the story concerns how the various characters interpret Goethe’s notebooks. Are they a plant designed to fool the Western secret services or are they authentic? If his revelations about the failures of the Soviet military prove to be genuine, how is the Western world to respond?
The reader becomes involved only slowly in the narrative; and in the author’s deliberately slow pace we sense that he is using the devices of the spy novel to address serious international issues. It is difficult to say whether this genre can adequately address such questions. The Russia House both succeeds and fails to do so.
The novel begins with Niki Landau, a Polish expatriate living in London. A salesman for a small publishing firm, Niki comes to Moscow for a book fair and meets a Russian editor, Katya, a tall, graceful, mysterious Russian woman with brown-black eyes and luxuriant black hair, who has been charged by Goethe with the responsibility of handing over his notebooks to Barley Blair. But Blair is in Portugal, and while she doesn’t know Niki, she turns the notebooks over to him to pass them on to Blair.
Neither Niki nor Katya is much good at smuggling. Through their carelessness, the notebooks eventually fall into the hands of the British secret service instead of Barley Blair. In fact, Niki and Katya make such a muddle of everything and are so incompetent that the reader may begin to doubt the plausibility of the plot. In view of the vast experience of Soviet dissidents in sending documents abroad during the Brezhnev period, le Carré’s heroine behaves much too naïvely; she works after all for a publishing house and is no fool as far as the publishing business goes. It seems unlikely that she would trust an unknown and inexperienced English book salesman to smuggle an important document out of the Soviet Union.
Poor Niki is so fearful of being caught at the Sheremetyevo airport customs that he cannot sleep the night before he leaves Moscow. The combination of desperation and farce recalls Vladimir Bukovsky’s To Build a Castle, written in the late 1970s, which tells, far more convincingly, how a Moscow alcoholic, wanting only to make some money, tries to sell a Bulgarian tourist ultra-secret information about a secret factory.
Even more doubtful than the actions of Katya and Niki are the “secret” notebooks themselves. From what we are told, the secrets contained in Goethe’s notes sound less like real secrets than the well-known parodies of official slogans found in dissident folklore: OUR GREATEST PROGRESS IS IN THE FIELD OF BACKWARDNESS! Goethe writes. SOVIET PARALYSIS IS THE MOST PROGRESSIVE IN THE WORLD! Goethe, we are told, tries to prove similar propositions in the notebooks, using mathematical computations, but it is never clear why his proofs of Soviet backwardness drive all the Western intelligence agencies crazy. That the USSR is in the grip of a serious economic depression is no secret to anyone, even in the USSR, during the third year of perestroika. For much of perestroika itself has been brought on by that same depression, by the fact that the country was caught, according to the discreet formula of the authorities, in a “pre-crisis condition,” which in reality meant it was on the edge of a precipice.
Goethe’s comments on the collapse of the Soviet military, instead of arousing panic among the Western secret services, would more likely delight them. In the novel some of the agents seem pleased by Goethe’s revelations, though only up to a point. An American comments:
The evil empire’s on its knees, oh yes! Their economy’s a disaster, their ideology’s up the spout and their backyard’s blowing up in their faces. Just don’t tell me that’s a reason for unbuckling our guns, because I won’t believe a word of you.
What, then, could possibly cause the Western agents to panic so? Why do the most conservative among them fiercely maintain that Goethe’s manuscript is a forgery intended as “disinformation”?
Goethe’s manuscript, if I understand these matters, might well be interpreted differently. If one’s opponent’s weapons are inferior, it does not mean that one should or must give up the arms race: it is, on the contrary, the moment to push him to the wall and increase the pressure. Goethe’s information could thus play into the hands of those who want to build up Western military strength. Or the Western countries might make a more radical political decision (it would seem, in fact, that just now some of them are reflecting on this very possibility): to reconsider in principle the policy of confrontation and, while encouraging the current democratic transformation in the Soviet Union, cease to regard the USSR as an inevitable adversary and undertake to negotiate disarmament. But such political choices never emerge in le Carré’s book; instead the plot is based on the desperate efforts by Western spies in Moscow to confirm Goethe’s information, so that the West’s interests can be protected.
Because the novel stumbles on two fairly obvious points early on, one can’t help being somewhat skeptical about the story, but its interest picks up when the hero, Barley Blair, is introduced. At first he seems too much like Niki, particularly in his capacity for bumbling. But although he is a drunkard and a failure, Barley at least has convictions and stands up for them. He is the most convincing character in the book, and his views clearly seem closest to those of the author himself.
When the British secret service tries to enlist Barley in Lisbon to get further information from Goethe in Moscow, he presents himself as a free, incorruptible Englishman who holds the secret services of the world, including his own, in contempt. Why then does he agree to take part in espionage for the British and Americans?
Barley’s views are a concise encyclopedia of contemporary European liberalism. He tells of his first meeting with Goethe at a dacha near Moscow:
I said I believed in Gorbachev…. I said that if the Americans had bothered as much about disarmament as they had about putting some fool on the moon or pink stripes into toothpaste, we’d have had disarmament long ago…. I said that by shaking our sabres the West had given the Soviet leaders the excuse to keep their gates locked and run a garrison state.
Le Carré seems convinced that similar—and similarly banal—arguments would accurately express the thinking of Goethe, and that such words would be enough to win Goethe over; but, in fact, a dissident Soviet physicist such as Goethe would most likely ask Barley the very same thing that the British spies have asked Barley: “And did you believe any of this nonsense?” Such conventional liberal ideas would not have been popular with most members of the Soviet dissident movement, who tended during the Brezhnev years to sympathize with the policies of the Reagan administration, to the disappointment of many European liberals. In le Carré’s book Goethe, unlike most Soviet dissidents, speaks in favor of Europe and England as counterweights to the United States and the Soviet Union. Goethe, Barley tells us,
Says he loves the English. The English are the moral leaders of Europe…. Says the English understand the relationship between words and action whereas in Russia nobody believes in action any more…. Says the Russians’ misfortune is that they long to be European but their destiny is to become American, and that the Americans have poisoned the world with materialistic logic.
The author, I’m afraid, has got much of this speech wrong if it is to be taken to represent any serious dissident tendency. Soviet dissidents, on the contrary, would not have asserted that America was poisoning the world with its materialistic logic. Belief in America, or in its myths, is too strong among pro-Western Soviet citizens for Goethe to have brushed it aside so easily, and he would not likely have entrusted Barley with his notebooks after hearing such professions of his liberal faith.
Goethe violates the dissident code even further when he cites approvingly a Russian writer of the nineteenth century named V. S. Pecherin (1807–1885), little known in the Soviet Union as well as the West, an intellectual noted for his Westernism who converted to Catholicism and emigrated to Ireland where he became a monk. Pecherin is famous mostly for a poem that even today infuriates the Russian nationalist ideologues in Pamyat and that Barley recalls Goethe reciting: “How sweet it is to hate one’s native land and avidly await its ruin…and in its ruin to discern the dawn of universal renaissance.”
No nationalist of any country, let alone Russia, would be pleased with such verses. Ever since Lermontov, it has been customary for Russians to feel a strange sort of love for their mother country; a love mixed with hatred for the regime and compassion for the oppressed Russian people. When Barley meets Goethe and asks him why he doesn’t follow Pecherin to the West, it turns out that “Goethe can’t do that because he can’t get a visa and anyway he doesn’t like God.” That he can’t get a visa is understandable, but his expressed dislike of God is unlikely. In Russia, God has often been a symbol of disobedience and nonconformism, and today’s dissident writers and the Russian intelligentsia in general would for the most part consider such outright blasphemy to be shameful.
All these inaccuracies, however, do not take away from the interest of le Carré’s discussion of betrayal, a favorite theme in some of his earlier books. In his last novel, A Perfect Spy, he wrote,
We betray to be loyal. Betrayal is like imagining when the reality isn’t good enough…. Betrayal as hope and compensation. As the making of a better land. Betrayal as love. As a tribute to our unlived lives…. Betrayal as travel; how can we discover new places if we never, leave home?
Goethe pursues the same ideas when he talks of Pecherin:
Pecherin showed there was nothing disloyal in betrayal provided you betrayed what you hated and fought for what you loved. Now supposing Pecherin had possessed great secrets about the Russian soul. What would he have done? Obvious. He’d have given them to the English.
This is the most original theme in the novel, and the influence of this obscure figure is the most plausible explanation of Goethe’s idealism. In Russia, as in any other country with an unbearable and terrible regime (Nazi Germany, for instance), the problem of betrayal has been acute. In Russia, it has been considered by some a matter of honor since the time of Prince Kurbsky, who sided with Lithuania to fight against the tyranny of Ivan the Terrible. His counterpart in the twentieth century was General Vlasov, who went over to the Germans to fight against Stalin. I am also reminded of the young Russian men sent abroad by the government in the seventeenth century to be educated at European universities, who were known as the “nonreturners,” because not a single one of them ever came home. The revolutionary parties in Russia were often willing to resort to terrorism and treason in order to undermine the regime, and, as is well known, Lenin was in collusion with the Germans, who let him pass through their territory in a sealed railway car at the outset of the February Revolution in order to demoralize the Russian war effort.
A crime punished severely in Russia, frequently with death, treason was often seen as a means to national salvation, since the regime itself was regarded as betraying the nation. Illegal criticism of the regime by Russian and Soviet dissidents became part of this tradition, beginning with Herzen and ending with Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky, and Daniel, as well as the contributors to the literary almanac Metropol (in which I took part in 1979). In my own experience, not a single dissident regarded samizdat as treason. It was a challenge to the bankrupt authorities to change their ways and was therefore a patriotic act. It is probably no accident that military secrets were not discussed in these publications.
In this sense, Goethe’s view of betrayal—I do not refer to his secret military information—is in the Russian antitotalitarian tradition and can be understood, although not necessarily justified, as reflecting the ethics of the Russian dissident movement. Through Goethe, le Carré suggests something fresh about Russia’s relation to the universal problem of treason. I might add that writing itself is a form of betrayal, for writers are linked by a common desire to articulate what is forbidden, what is secret or concealed; and the power of le Carré’s handling of the theme of treachery seems to derive from his sense of the writer’s need to uncover the truth.
Even though the author, speaking through Barley, tells us, “If there is to be help, we must all betray our own countries,” he remains a patriot. The Englishman turns out to be superior to the Americans whenever the different groups of spies are in conflict. Le Carré also displays a special fondness for the charming, humane British spies Ned and Harry, who are responsible for training and debriefing Barley for the Moscow mission, and who, unlike their American counterparts, believe in Goethe’s honesty. I confess, though, that I felt nothing but disgust for these (humane and inhumane) heroes of the “unseen front,” as spies are known in Russia, because they believe in their own inalienable right to meddle in the personal lives of others—a belief that can only lead to stylish cynicism, a quality they share with the heroes of cheap thrillers. They are particularly odious when they use false names while debriefing Barley, with the help of a lie detector, on a secret American island in the Atlantic, a scene that reminds me very much of trial by ordeal.
Perhaps I am not a good judge of spy novels, since I am always suspicious that the psychology in them depends too heavily on the demands of the plot, and the analysis of deception and calculation that is made so much of in such books is often suffocating and tiresome. Nor am I much taken with arguments that spies are necessary in the world today; some professions may serve a useful social function but are disgusting nevertheless. All the more awkward, in my view, is a certain, perhaps at times involuntary, romanticizing of the profession by le Carré, which is not unlike romanticizing prostitutes or gangsters.
Still, le Carré’s observations of life in the Soviet Union are often sensitive, witty, and careful. He has faithfully reproduced the atmosphere of book fairs, receptions and official embraces, of the empty words and insincere fraternizing among publishers, writers, and all sorts of literary hangers-on, as well as their constant drinking and hearty speeches at parties, where foreigners act as if Russia is a gigantic bar where they must get drunk as they would nowhere else, while the hosts guffaw approvingly. And le Carré accurately describes “the low cottonwool sky” over Leningrad, the characteristic odor of gasoline in Moscow, the thin-walled partitions in Moscow apartment houses that make it possible for unseen neighbors to become obtrusive partners in one’s life.
As for Katya, however, we must first ask, Is she even Russian? I very much doubt it. She speaks an unthinkably elegant nineteenth-century English which, according to le Carré, was acquired from her reading of uncensored English classics (although today Russians on the whole prefer books like The Russia House to Jane Austen). In practice, however, Katya would be more likely to speak a passable but nonetheless “Russian English,” an English that has been permanently harmed by years behind the iron curtain—not an ideological curtain but a psychological one. Le Carré’s Katya is the product of an all-too-Western literary imagination, of a mentality that is too European to be even a little bit Russian. The only thing Russian about her is the Lada she drives and the Zhigulev beer she drinks.
Describing Russians accurately is an age-old problem for Western writers. And le Carré is not the first or the last to portray a Russian woman as a purely Western hostage of a monstrous Eastern despotism who is nevertheless untouched by that despotism, though she has lived in it all her life. Katya’s sacrificial love for Goethe may appear to be typically Russian, but their relationship is too abstractly presented to be convincing. Of course one can understand how Barley could fall so passionately in love with the fantasy Katya, with her ideally long legs, ideal body, and ideal wit, that he would lose his commitment to his mission as a spy, with the result that he yields to his Soviet “colleagues” in the end and goes over to the Soviet side. In any case this betrayal is done for sentimental reasons—his passion for Katya and his hope to save Goethe from the KGB. And after the death of Goethe, who is hunted down by spies from several countries, Barley’s own treachery promises to lead to a happy ending and a wedding.
Perhaps I am judging The Right House too harshly. It makes no claim exhaustive analysis, psychological of otherwise. Perhaps. But le Carré has set for himself an ambitious subject: the fate of the contemporary world. The novel is neither absorbing enough to be a mere spy novel nor precise enough to meet the requirements of psychological fiction. Instead we have something in between, something often quite fine, as we might have expected from a distinguished writer like le Carré. But this “in between” cannot be called the golden mean.