Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Russia House

The Russia House, John Le Carre.

Largely effective, but in retrospect appears a bit under-performing. It's a novel about spies that's very aware of it's own moment in history as a transition point, the Cold War fading away yet institutions predicated on perceiving reality being unwilling to surrender cherished paradigms. It's useful on the level of social politics, both trying to get individuals to buy into the intelligence service and to configure the terms on which that entity is. As always, the upper elite of spycraft struggle for a sort of imagined community. Their presented ideal is problematic in itself--a state within a state, ruthless power justified by the exercise of style above all, conservative interests and justification, sacrificing individuals to long-term processes. But this isn't even the whole story, as Le Carre's spies are invariably more ineffective, self-deceiving and blinded than they assume, and their struggle with the fantasy of the trade is as much a hindrance as anything else.

The plot is tight, the pace good, the line-by-line writing as good as Le Carre's always been. Unfortunately the characters are much less memorable, and the book ultimately struggles to rise to new themes than articulated earlier in Le Carre's career. Arguably, his spies weren't the only ones struggling with obsolescence, and there's a worn-out feel to the narrative that I don't read as entirely intentional.

Better than: Iain Bank's The Business
Worse than: Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

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