I grew up in a very different world than the one we live in currently.
In some ways, it’s better–in others, possibly worse; still others, sadly, remain the same–unchanged by the tide of time and the course of human events. I grew up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud; in elementary school we did “nuclear attack drills” which including getting under the desk (because that would help if Chicago received a direct hit) and I also remember that the basement of Eli Whitney Elementary was a bomb shelter; I remember those nuclear triangles hanging above the stairs (the bathrooms were also in the basement). I remember air raid sirens being tested in the afternoons, and while I didn’t spend a LOT of time worrying about nuclear annihilation and war, it was always there in the back of my head. When we moved to Kansas, you can imagine my shock to learn from a PBS documentary that Kansas and the midwest were riddled with nuclear missile bases–there was an abandoned one not far from my high school we used to goof around and explore–and when the little town (Bushong) that was nearest the abandoned base was LISTED AS A TARGET you can imagine how freaky that was…especially since the base was abandoned. (The Day After, a television movie in the early 1980’s about nuclear holocaust, was set in Kansas City and its environs and really played up the fact that those Midwestern bases would be Russian targets)
A while back I read my first John LeCarre novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, last year and loved it. So when I saw a hardcover of The Russia House at the library sale for two dollars, I bought it.
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 late sunlight was blazing in the puddles and raising vapor from the pavements. Of the passers-by, the younger ones wore jeans and sneakers, but their elders were still huddled in their warms.
The room the Council had rented was not expensive but neither was it appropriate to the occasion.–I have seen it. Not long ago, in Moscow on quite another mission, I tiptoed up the great empty staircase and, with a diplomatic passport in my pocket, stooging in the eternal dusk that shrouds old ballrooms when they are asleep.–With its plump brown pillars an gilded mirrors, it was better suite to the last hours of a sinking liner than the launch of a great initiative. On the ceiling, snarling Russians in proletarian caps shook their fists at Lenin. Their vigor contrasted unhelpfully with the chipped green racks of sound cassettes along the walls, featuring Winnie-the-Pooh and Advanced Computer English in Three Hours. The sackcloth sound-booths, locally procured and lacking many o their promised features, had the sadness of neck chairs on a rainy beach. The exhibitors’ stands, crammed under the shadow of an overhanging gallery, seemed as blasphemous as betting shops in a tabernacle.
The Russia House is set during the late 1980’s; during the time of glasnost and perestroika; greater and more open relationships with the West rather than the adversarial relationship that existed since the fall of the Tsars and the collapse of communism (with the exception of that time when the Soviets were allied with the West against the Axis during World War II). It’s extremely well-written; Le Carre was a magnificent writer, and the images he creates with his words (I mean “described by Muscovites as Empire During the Plague” literally made me laugh out loud), plus LeCarre had a marvelous wit that was evident on every page.
It took me a lot longer to read than I thought it might, primarily because I didn’t really engage with the story, partly because I felt the main character–Barley Blair–wasn’t particularly likable; don’t get me wrong, I love unlikable characters. I just felt like I didn’t really get to know him well enough to engage with his character, and what LeCarre chose to share of his life (he treats women terribly, drinks too much, isn’t very good at his job and doesn’t really give a shit that he isn’t) simply wasn’t enough. Same with the female lead, Katya–she and Barley, through the course of being really incidental characters in the espionage war between the USSR and the West, fall in love; yet again, I never really learned anything about her, or enough, to care about her or the burgeoning romance between the two of them.
I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the book–I did; because I love the way LeCarre uses language, but in the hands of a lesser writer, I would have probably given up without finishing.
And I will definitely read more LeCarre.