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...
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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 relationship with Maria means freedom: “He felt he was throwing away his life. The abandonment was delicious.”
What Leonard considers uncomplicated happiness begins to alter when his quest for freedom from innocence leads him to release the darker side of his id. He develops sexual fantasies in which Maria becomes conquered Germany: “He wanted her to acknowledge what was on his mind, however stupid it really was. He could not believe she would not be aroused by it.… She had to give him what was his.” These fantasies lead him to attempt to rape her, and he is shocked when she does not respond as expected. Throughout The Innocent, McEwan clearly intends Leonard to represent the moral innocence that leads countries to inflict their views of the world upon weaker nations. Leonard’s despair over the possibility of losing Maria because of his stupid crudeness provides him with his first serious emotions. When, after a period of separation, she forgives him and they become engaged, “He felt settled, proud, truly grown up at last.” His discovery of Otto’s brutality, however, shocks him into realizing “that he knew nothing about people, what they could do, how they could do it.” Such a realization by a man who tries to rape the woman he loves is typical of McEwan’s irony.
Returning home to spend Christmas with his parents, Leonard cannot tell them that he has changed, that he is in love with a foreigner, a divorced woman five years his senior. In England, he misses the freedom of his life in Berlin, a freedom he associates with the American rock and roll he first hears there. Back in Germany, he and Maria learn to dance to this new music: “Leonard took satisfaction in dancing in a way his parents and their friends did not, and could not, and in liking music they would hate, and in feeling at home in a city where they would never come. He was free.” By always defining freedom in such adolescent terms, he makes it so superficial that it is bound to fade.
At their engagement party, Maria jokes with Leonard about his sexual innocence; however, she recognizes another, less humorous innocence: “You like anyone who’s kind to you. If Hitler buys you a drink, you say he’s a decent fellow!” His adolescent innocence creates additional turmoil during the conflict with Otto, when he is concerned more with Maria’s possible doubts about his manhood. His reactions are those of an adolescent: “Otto was her responsibility, her fault, he was hers. And she had the nerve to be angry with him, Leonard.” He begins losing his affection for her not because they kill Otto but because they cover it up. In dismantling the body, he both admires her calm expertise and is repelled by it. They have come to share not love but disgust. Leonard is worried less about killing and butchering a human being than about being caught and is concerned even less with betraying his friends and country or with misjudging and mistreating Maria. His moral innocence and his naive goodness create a morass of unfelt guilt which he transfers to suspicion about Maria and Glass. In her 1987 letter, Maria accuses him: “It was wrong of you to retreat with your anger and silence. So English! So male! If you felt betrayed you should have stood your ground and fought for what was yours.” Instead of facing the truths revealed in her letter, Leonard retreats into an adolescent fantasy of finding Maria and taking her to Berlin, of recapturing the past.
While Maria is attracted to Leonard because of his vulnerability, she fails, however, to anticipate the dangers such innocence can create. For a mature woman who has witnessed wartime atrocities and has been married to a brute; she is crucially lacking in the skepticism necessary for survival in the type of society in which she finds herself When she asks herself, “What kind of man was it who crept up in the dark to apologize for a rape?” she ignores the answer.
Leonard’s naivete contrasts with a different kind of dangerous innocence displayed by his American friends. The Innocent opens with a British Army officer warning Leonard about the Americans he is going to be working with: “They don’t know a thing. What’s worse, they won’t learn, they won’t be told.” Leonard, nevertheless, identifies with Americans, admires their style: “They wanted to make things possible, and easy. They wanted to look after you.” A boy himself, he is attracted by their boyish enthusiasms for sports and music. Glass combines naivete with cynicism, finding fault with everything not American: “The British. It’s hard to make those guys at the stadium take anything seriously. They’re so busy being gentlemen. They don’t do their jobs.” Glass resents the political considerations that force the Americans to allow their inferiors to take part in the tunnel project. McEwan contrasts Glass’s repeated claims for Americans’ seriousness with their love for football and rock and roll. Ironically, Maria sees through the man she will later marry: “His mind is too simple and too busy. These are the dangerous ones. He thinks you must love America or you must be a spy for the Russians. These are the ones who want to start another war.
In addition to innocence and freedom, The Innocent is about secrecy. Glass, the transparent one with his enthusiasm for the simplicity of his beliefs, claims that early man had to invent language only when he had secrets to keep, that secrecy is responsible for culture and individuality. Secrecy thrives in Cold War Berlin, where, according to Glass, there are between five thousand and ten thousand spies. Glass takes pride in people on the same side keeping secrets from each other: “Everybody thinks his clearance is the highest there is, everyone thinks he has the final story. You only hear of a higher level at the moment you’re being told about it.” Such internal secrecy grows “out of a certain virile cult of competence that permitted you to brush by strangers and talk past their faces.” This duplicity is full of ironies, such as Blake’s harsh warning to Leonard about revealing secrets, the sanctity of secrecy delaying the discovery of Otto’s mutilated corpse, and the Soviets knowing, because of Blake, about the tunnel all along and diverting their most important messages.
The Innocent is less a Cold War thriller in the vein of the espionage novels of John le Carre and Len Deighton than a dark comedy of manners dealing with differences between nationalities, social classes, and sexes. Written in a simpler style and paying more attention to plot than in his earlier novels, The Innocent seems an atypical McEwan work until the struggle with Otto begins. His death, dismemberment, and disposal become a tour de force in which McEwan shows off his skills in descriptive detail, pacing, black humor, and irony. A typical McEwan touch is Leonard’s finding that a piece of Otto’s flesh is trapped in his teeth. He uses a toothpick to remove it: “He did not swallow the morsel and add to his crimes. Now, every little thing was a plus.” McEwan’s delight in the grotesque matches that of Martin Amis and T. Coraghessan Boyle. While The lnnocent does not achieve the originality and power of The Cement Garden, it succeeds on many levels, including being an ironic commentary on the Cold War tensions of the recent past, a parable about England’s declining influence as a world power, and a sophisticated entertainment.
Sources for Further Study
Listener. CXXIII, May 17, 1990, p.23.
London Review of Books. XII, May 10, 1990, p.24.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 24, 1990, p.3.
The New Republic. CCIII, July 23, 1990, p.37.
New Statesman and Society. III, May 11, 1990, p.35.
The New York Times Book Review. XCV, June 3’ 1990, p.1.
Newsweek. CXV, June 4, 1990, p.80.
The Observer. May 6, 1990, p.61.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, April 13, 1990, p.55.
The Spectator. CCLXIV, May 12, 1990, p.36.
Time. CXXXV, June 25, 1990, p.69.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 11, 1990, p.497.
The Washington Post Book World. XX, June 3’ 1990, p.10.