As part of my continuing efforts to read more books from the back catalogues of my favourite authors, I have recently read ‘The Innocent’ by Ian McEwan which tells the story of Leonard Marnham, a twenty-five-year-old British Post Office engineer who has been recruited to work in Berlin in the mid-1950s as part of Operation Gold, a joint Anglo-American top secret project which involved building a tunnel under the Russian sector of Berlin in order to tap communication lines. When Leonard falls in love with an older German divorcee, Maria Eckdorf, their relationship soon becomes entangled with the operation with far-reaching consequences.
The title of the novel can be interpreted in several different ways, most significantly in Leonard’s social awkwardness and naïve behaviour towards Maria in the early days of their romance as well as his lack of experience at work where the real task at hand is never fully revealed to him. The atmosphere of uncertainty and potential betrayal in postwar Berlin where secrets are a form of currency ensures that dread, tension and suspense are all maintained very effectively throughout the story right up until the postscript set in 1987. The characters also reflect the social and political context of their respective countries at the time – Leonard is simultaneously in awe and suspicious of his American superior, Bob Glass, while Maria is struggling with her identity after the collapse of her first marriage.
Half way through reading the book, I observed that ‘The Innocent’ had so far been much less macabre compared to some of McEwan’s earlier books such as his short story collection First Love, Last Rites. However, this abruptly changes in the second part when the plot takes a surprisingly gruesome turn following the appearance of Maria’s violent ex-husband Otto and an event which alters the course of Leonard’s life forever. Without wanting to give too much away, let’s just say that Leonard (or rather McEwan) knows how to deal with a corpse if he needs to and is considerably less innocent by the end.
Written towards the end of the Cold War shortly before the Berlin Wall came down, ‘The Innocent’ was published during a key turning point in modern history and perhaps marks a turning point in McEwan’s writing too. As a novel, it is a bridge between his grisly early work and his more recent literary work focused on relationships, and in many ways it also feels like a sort of prototype of ‘Atonement’, another book of two halves with a naive central character. Highly recommended to dedicated McEwan fans as well as those who have yet to read his other books.