The Russia House

by John le Carré
Knopf, 353 pp., $19.95

John le Carré
John le Carré; drawing by David Levine

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.…

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