Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Ian McEwan has long been considered one of the best of the English novelists born after World War II, but his first three novels and two collections of short stories have not brought him the widespread recognition he deserves. With The lnnocent, his most accessible novel to date, that neglect may change. The Cement Garden (1978), The Comfort of Strangers (1981), and The Child in Time (1987) are dark, often depressing, contemplations of innocence, freedom, sex, violence, guilt, and responsibility. The Innocent takes all these themes and interweaves them with two parallel plots—an espionage tale and a love story—to create an entertaining glimpse at the absurdities of the modern world.
Leonard Marnham, a telephone technician for the British Post Office, is sent to Berlin in 1955 to work on a secret cooperative project between the American and British governments. An enormous tunnel is being dug to tap the telephone lines linking Moscow and the East European capitals, and Leonard installs the 150 tape recorders that monitor these transmissions. More sophisticated equipment created by the Americans breaks down the coded messages. McEwan has based the details of this enterprise on a real-life joint venture between the Central Intelligence Agency and British M16 known as Operation Gold.
As Leonard begins the project, he meets Maria Eckdorf in a Berlin nightclub and is quickly in love with the older, divorced German. Thereafter, he divides his time between his work and the apartment of Maria, a typist and translator for the British Army. John MacNamee, a British government scientist and one of Leonard’s superiors, asks him to spy on his American friends to learn details about the decoding device. Bob Glass, Leonard’s closest American friend, thinks Maria may be a spy and humiliates her with his investigation. Maria is more upset when Otto, her drunken former husband, arrives for one of his periodic visits and beats her.
Leonard is present as Otto pays another surprise visit, and when the Englishman intervenes to prevent another attack upon his lover, Otto turns his violence toward Leonard. During the ensuing struggle, Leonard bites an enormous chunk of flesh out of Otto’s cheek and then kills his attacker by hitting him in the head with a cobbler’s last. Maria insists that the local police, friends of Otto, will not believe their claim of self-defense, and the couple dismembers the corpse and packs it into two empty equipment cases that Leonard brings from his work.
When Leonard’s plan to leave the cases in railway station lockers fails, he takes them home where he encounters a suspicious neighbor, the British diplomat George Blake. Nearing panic, he carries them, with Glass’s unwitting assistance, to his work, invoking security to prevent the contents from being examined. In an attempt to protect himself further, Leonard leaks the secret of the tunnel to the East Germans, and the Soviets quickly move in to seize the operation. With the project over, Leonard must return to England, and while he and Maria promise each other that she will join him there to be married, he believes that their relationship has been irrevocably damaged, a decision confirmed when Glass joins Maria at the airport to wave “their insulting goodbye.” Leonard concludes that Maria has cynically traded one Western lover for another.
The many ironies of The Innocent are illuminated in its coda, set in Berlin in 1987. Leonard, now a manufacturer of hearing-aid components, returns to Germany after receiving a letter from Maria, their first contact in thirty-one years. Now the widow of Bob Glass, she explains how her husband covered up Otto’s death to prevent bad publicity for Western intelligence and how they later fell in love and moved to Iowa when he left the Army. She reveals that George Blake, a real-life double agent tried for espionage in the early 1960’s, told the Soviets that Leonard was going to deposit decoding equipment in the tunnel for one day only. This information, not Leonard’s treachery, led to the seizure of the tunnel. The Innocent ends with Leonard, a relatively happy husband and father, longing to reunite with Maria in a Berlin almost unrecognizable from the one they had shared.
The Innocent is a study of the psychological, social, and political forces that converge to drive naive Leonard into duplicity without exactly corrupting his basic innocence. Because Leonard has always lived with his parents in Tottenham, he is overwhelmed by the freedom of living alone in Berlin. For the first time, he is an adult with a true identity: “He was part of a team, a sharer in a secret. He was a member of the clandestine elite…who gave the city its real purpose.” Leonard’s awkwardness, however, ensures that he will not make the most of this experience. Indeed, despite being a technician, he is ill equipped for the modern world: “He would have to use the phone, an instrument he was not easy with, despite his work. His parents did not have one, nor did any of his friends, and he rarely had to make calls at work.” He is a passive person who allows things to happen to him. Maria initiates their friendship by sending him a note in the nightclub: “The message was hardly a surprise. Now it was before him, it was more a matter of recognition for him, of accepting the inevitable. It had always been certain to start like this.” Leonard does not hesitate to tell Maria that he is a twenty-five-year-old virgin; after the brutality of Otto, such innocence is a relief for Maria. More than sex, love, or maturity, his...
(The entire section is 2296 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
In Berlin, circa 1955, Leonard Marnham, a mild-mannered British postal technician, sits in a meeting with Lieutenant Lofting, a blustery, stiff-upper-lip British officer. The two men spend most of their time together complaining about the Americans. It becomes clear that Leonard is going to figure in some kind of intelligence operation, but Lofting does not (or is not at liberty to) explain what it is. Lofting mentions that his superior, Sheldrake, has handed over the majority of this operation to the Americans; as a result, Leonard has been handed over as well. Leonard has no experience in espionage; he is a simple man who still lives with his parents. This makes him all the more bewildered to find himself in Berlin dealing with American and British agents. At the end of his meeting with Lofting, Leonard is told to return to his flat and await contact from the Americans.
When he arrives at his quarters, he soon receives a phone call from an American who identifies himself as Bob Glass. Glass gruffly gives Leonard an address and tells him to meet him there at 8 o'clock the next morning. Alone in a foreign city, Leonard goes to a local watering hole and indulges in a few drinks. A group of old German men, already well on their way drink-wise, boast to each other loudly at the next table. Leonard eavesdrops, attempting to test his German, and finds he understands more the longer he listens. When the men invite him to drink with them, he politely declines and returns to his flat.
In the morning, Leonard fusses over his clothing, wanting to dress appropriately without seeming like a fish out of water. He settles on a modest suit and heads out to meet Bob Glass at the appointed location. Glass’s office, which doubles as his living quarters, is in complete disarray. He is a burly, hirsute man, and he quickly throws together some instant coffee to share with Leonard. He then bluntly quizzes Leonard about what he knows, which is very little: he is supposed to conduct some tests using equipment, but he does not know the nature of the work. In a reversal of Lofting’s critique of the Americans, Glass criticizes the British for their handling of the situation thus far and notes that Berlin is crawling with freelance operatives. He then receives a phone call that summons the two of them to a place known as Altglienicke, or the warehouse.
Chapter 2 Summary
On the way to the warehouse, Glass quizzes Leonard about the specifics of his life and background. Leonard reveals that he has never been married nor had the opportunity. Glass asks him whether he is gay or straight; when Leonard tells him he likes girls, Glass informs him, without asking for his input, that they will go out that evening and pick up some women. Leonard is surprised by Glass’s matter-of-fact manner and lack of people skills, but ascribes it to his being American.
As they approach the warehouse, Glass details the different levels of clearance and how they operate at all times. He explains that the warehouse was built for covert surveillance, but the workers who built the facility did not know that; they...
(The entire section is 487 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Leonard excitedly awaits his evening out with Glass, feeling very optimistic. He recalls Glass’s assertion that the city is full of people doing espionage work and feels proud to have a place among them. Feeling more settled, he sits down to begin a shopping list and, in doing so, plans his day-to-day schedule. As he makes the list, Leonard begins to see it as a reflection of himself. In a way, the things he plans to buy at the store are indicative of the new idea of himself that he is trying to create in Germany. His work gives Leonard a sense of sureness that he equates with manliness. To help him when he gets to the supermarket, Leonard uses a German dictionary to find the German words for the items he wishes to buy. Since he...
(The entire section is 401 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Leonard awakens and hastily prepares himself for his evening out with Glass. When he heads downstairs to meet him, he is surprised to find another gentleman in Glass’s tiny car. The man introduces himself as Russell, and the three set off for a bar. During the car ride, Russell garrulously relates whatever sights they happen to pass. They finally arrive at the bar and begin ordering rounds of beers and champagne, the latter of which Leonard feels is of very poor quality. Russell and especially Glass dominate the conversation, with Leonard not wanting to voice opinions without knowing how they will be received. The other two spend the first few rounds grumbling about Germany and the poor quality of life. They wonder how long East...
(The entire section is 436 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Leonard awakens the next morning with a terrible hangover, but still thinking of Maria. He spent more than an hour and a half at her table learning more about her. Although she had asked for a dance, Leonard was feeling somewhat queasy from the mixture of liquors he had ingested and asked to sit down first. He learned that Maria was a divorcee with an abusive ex-husband, whose marriage had alienated her from her family. At the end of the conversation, Maria writes down her address on a piece of cardboard, which Leonard now clutches as he sits on public transit on his way to work.
When he first arrives at work, he still feels somewhat drunk and uneasy, but he makes his way to the room of machines where he is to begin his...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Leonard is initially unsure what to do. Maria seems shocked even though she clearly recognizes Leonard, and she draws back in fear. It occurs to Leonard that Maria has had men barge into her home before and brutalize her. He picks up the note and hands it to her, hoping it will explain his boldness in walking into her home unannounced. She reads the note and is mildly horrified by the bar he chose as a meeting place (she, too, knows that it is for prostitutes). She abruptly begins chit-chatting with Leonard flirtatiously, and closes the door behind him. She invites him to tea and he takes in his surroundings as she converses from the next room. The home is remarkably spare, and Leonard realizes its lack of furnishings allows for...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Leonard keeps working assiduously at the warehouse, and eventually all of the machines are unpacked. His next responsibility is repairing the recorders before they get taken to a recording room in preparation for the line tapping. As Leonard completes this phase of his work, he finds himself pulling back from the people around him. He eats in isolation and stays in his workroom for most of the day. Over lunch, he frequently hears other workers, often Americans, telling stories of other espionage work they have done. He marvels at their openness and occasionally hears the name of certain individuals mentioned more than once. Since he stays alone most of the time, Leonard has become adept at eavesdropping. Glass checks on him...
(The entire section is 495 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Leonard’s sexual initiation causes an abrupt change in his hygienic habits. Normally a very clean, orderly man, Leonard goes a full work week without bathing. Instead of going home, he goes to Maria’s flat and has no toiletries or change of clothes. His stubble begins to grow in (which Glass notices in passing), and he smells of sex, food, sweat, and other unidentifiable odors. Only at the end of the work week does Leonard return home to clean up and pack an overnight bag to take with him back to Maria’s apartment.
Maria is incredibly patient with Leonard as he learns how to make love to a woman. He is fascinated by her body and spends hours under the covers in her room exploring every part of it, including her...
(The entire section is 481 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Despite his longing for Maria, Leonard finds his attention taken back to his increasingly detailed work responsibilities. Soon after Maria’s departure, the team at the warehouse is ready to install the taps. In the cramped, humid vertical tunnel leading up to the cables, Leonard watches the initial stages of the tapping along with MacNamee, several technicians, and an unidentified American. MacNamee oversees the operation, knowing that this is the most delicate part of their plan. Throughout the procedure, MacNamee stays on a phone line that connects to agents posted on the roof, whose responsibility is to monitor the street beneath which the tunnel has been dug. Throughout the entire tunneling process, these agents have...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
As the wiretapping and recording continue, Leonard pines after Maria. He stops at her flat every night and always finds her absent. Her downstairs neighbor, who previously regarded Leonard with suspicion and anger, now finds Leonard pathetic. After the first few days, he gives up on the idea of leaving presents or letters. He knows that he will eventually have to find Maria and try to ask for her forgiveness. He recognizes that the timing of the apology (as well as the location) will play an important role in his success at getting Maria’s forgiveness. If he approaches her after work, out on the street, she will have too many opportunities to escape or brush him aside. In order for him to successfully apologize to Maria, Leonard...
(The entire section is 413 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
After having abandoned hope of finding Maria at her place, Leonard is flabbergasted to find her waiting on the landing to his apartment one evening. Leonard’s natural awkwardness stymies him as he tries to come up with things to say. At first he can only utter her name quietly. Maria’s body language is very closed off, and it is clear she has not made up her mind yet about forgiving him. Finally, Leonard breaks the awkward silence by apologizing. In the middle of his apology, the lights on the landing go out. Leonard remembers that they operate on a timer and stay on for only ninety seconds at a time.
In the dark, he tries to find Maria. He decides that if he can just hold her and perhaps kiss her, she will remember...
(The entire section is 447 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
At work, Leonard finds himself passing by Glass’s office. The door is open, and the American quickly motions for Leonard to come in. With his usual intense energy, Glass magnanimously informs Leonard that Maria has passed all of the security checks. Glass goes on about Maria’s beauty and how several other officers find her attractive, all of which irks Leonard. As Glass relays the story of her security evaluation, Leonard pretends to hear all of this for the first time. In reality, Maria had told him all about the process, which had already stoked his anger. Leonard reminds Glass that he told him at the beginning that Maria knew nothing and represented no threat to the operation. Despite this, Glass reaffirms the necessity of...
(The entire section is 429 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
Maria and Leonard restart their relationship on new terms, trying to do everything to erase the shadow of Leonard’s violence. The often go out to clubs, and have taken to listening to American rock and roll as well as rhythm and blues; they are particularly fond of Fats Domino. They split their time between Leonard’s apartment and Maria’s. Sometimes, they go out of town for the weekends; other times, they stay in and read. Although they do not discuss the idea out loud, marriage is clearly on both of their minds. Leonard occasionally catches Maria slowing down as they pass a jewelry shop window. Their renewed dating is blissful, and Leonard marvels at his good fortune. He also notes that it is different from their first...
(The entire section is 411 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
Leonard goes home to England at Christmas for the first time since moving to Berlin. He tries to convince Maria to come with him, but she insists that his parents will be less than impressed with a divorcee from Germany. Before he heads off, Leonard gets a Christmas gift from Glass—a high-end ballpoint pen. When Leonard arrives home, he soon realizes that Maria’s assumptions were correct. His parents barely register anything he tells them about Maria as if she didn’t even exist. Coming home, Leonard realizes he has grown up a lot during the past year abroad, but his parents still see him as an overgrown child. His mother fusses over him and his father tells him what to do as if he were still a teenager. He is soon stiflingly...
(The entire section is 418 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
The jive craze seduces Leonard and Maria just as they get engaged. Initially they had been skeptical, but with the explosion of rhythm and blues–based rock and roll, they soon are captivated and begin learning the moves. They decided to celebrate their engagement with a party, even though Leonard does not know many people. He invites Glass and Russell from work, as well as Lofting, the British agent who had first consigned Leonard to work with the Americans at the warehouse; Leonard had run into him by chance and recognized that the man was lonely. Leonard also runs into his neighbor, George Blake, who has warmed somewhat since the silence that followed their encounter on the landing. Leonard invites him and his wife, and he is...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
Trying to remain calm, Leonard and Maria get out of bed and begin to get dressed in the dark. Leonard hums a rock-and-roll song in an attempt to disguise their awareness of the intruder. He suddenly turns on the light, but no one emerges from the wardrobe. Leonard quickly flings the door open to find Otto asleep in the bottom of the wardrobe. Concerned but less alarmed, he and Maria retreat to the living room to decide what to do next. Leonard wants to call the police, but Maria is not sure. The police have bought Otto’s story about being a war hero and sometimes pay for his drinks; Maria doubts they will take action against him. As they try to hash out what to do, they begin to fight with each other. Maria is angry with Leonard...
(The entire section is 497 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
In the aftermath of the attack, Leonard feels numb and exhausted, barely able to stay awake. Still, he knows that he and Maria must decide what to do with Otto. Leonard’s first instinct is to report it to the German police, but Maria again raises concerns about Otto’s ties to them. In addition to his lies about being a war hero, he may also have told them lies about his ex-wife and the Englishman she had taken up with. Leonard then proposes that they report it to the British police, whom he believes are more likely to be sympathetic to Leonard and his unusual circumstances. Maria knows that if they do that, the British will have to involve the Germans because of her. Leonard is having trouble concentrating because his testicles...
(The entire section is 411 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
The floor of the dining area is covered with newspaper, and Maria and Leonard move Otto to the table. As they move Otto, some fluid escapes from his body and falls onto Leonard’s pants. He is so sickened he nearly drops the body. He just makes it to the table and then runs to the bathroom to be sick. When he returns, Maria suggests wearing an apron, but he refuses. The saws and knives have all been laid out, and Maria has gotten a special kind of sealed wrapping paper. After he has removed Otto’s shoes and socks, Leonard begins to saw off one of the corpse’s feet. It is hard work at first, and Leonard has to fight his diminishing will. They had decided that working at the joints would be easiest, but in practice, that is not...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
Leonard is only vaguely aware that the next phase of his plan has not been properly thought out, but he is so exhausted that he can only press forward. He braces himself for the task ahead before leaving Maria’s building. The suitcases are unbearably heavy and he finds he can only walk in short bursts. He carries them for a few yards, rests, and continues. It occurs to him that he might draw attention to himself by the sheer weight of his luggage, so he tries to retain as cool a demeanor as possible. The suitcases are so heavy that they start to tear at the skin on his hands. In addition, the bearing of weight seems to further exacerbate the pain in his groin. During one break, he is approached by a woman walking a dog. The dog...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
On the drive to work, Glass chastises Leonard for his handling of the entertainment of an upcoming event being planned at the warehouse to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the project. Leonard had hired a bagpipe player using the full entertainment budget and Glass is certain that the workers will find the performance boring and dreary—particularly since it is a Scottish tradition, not English, German, or American. As Glass raves, Leonard can only half listen because he knows that when they arrive at the warehouse, the guards will want to inspect the contents of the suitcases. Sure enough, when they arrive, the guards look in his trunk and ask to view what’s inside the suitcases. They haul the heavy bags into the booth and...
(The entire section is 426 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
MacNamee requests a meeting to discuss the contents of the suitcases, which were on the Russian side of the tunnel and thus confiscated by the Germans. Leonard is able to extend his lie by explaining that he was working privately on some new decoding equipment designed to increase the clarity and effectiveness of the decoding. MacNamee accepts Leonard’s explanation acknowledging his disappointment with the discovery, even though the whole team knew it could happen at any time. He informs Leonard that he is being called back by the British and will be leaving Germany soon.
When Leonard arrives at Maria’s flat that night, he is surprised to discover Glass there. Glass insists that his visit is simply...
(The entire section is 430 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary
The day of his departure, Lofting’s driver takes Leonard to the airport. A woman’s hand touches him lightly and he turns to find Maria there. The tension between them is considerable and they seem unsure of how to talk about the future. Maria again assures him that everything will be fine, but Leonard still expects to be arrested before he boards the plane. He asks her whether she has given notice at work, and she tells him she has. She says that her boss is very angry with her and has grown accustomed to her waiting on him; he even tried to change her mind. She presses Leonard about whether he has told his parents of their engagement, but he insists he will do it when he gets back to England.
Before he leaves,...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary
In 1987, Leonard Marnham returns to Germany, just over thirty years after he left Maria and Glass at the airport. He has a family now, and he owns a business that makes parts for hearing aids. He marvels at the changes that have taken place, particularly the angry youth and the abundance of graffiti. His first visit is to Maria’s old apartment; he finds the building much changed but still intact. The apartment complex is even slummier and more dangerous than he remembers when Maria lived there. A group of Turkish children playing outside watch him suspiciously as he looks around. Although he had initially hoped he might knock on the door of whoever occupies Maria’s apartment and see what it looks like, he instead leaves,...
(The entire section is 531 words.)