(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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.)