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Ian McEwan (1990) Peter Childs, University of Gloucestershire Add to Bookshelves Biography Contemporaries List Works (739 words)

Print Add to Bookshelves Web resources Domain: Literature. Genre: Novel. Country: England, Britain, Europe. The Innocent (1990) is in many ways a simple spy novel, a thriller written in straightforward prose. When published it was McEwan's most successful novel to that date. The novel is set in postwar Berlin at the time of Operation Gold (1955-6), the attempt by the British and Americans to tunnel into the Soviet sector and infiltrate communist communication systems. In this novel, as well as focussing on the actual Berlin Tunnel built by MI6 and the CIA, McEwan breaks the fictional frame by introducing the figure of George Blake, the double-agent who, in real life, betrayed Operation Gold before it started. The book is concerned with the postwar world (and the world of McEwan's childhood) and the struggle, after the war, between East and West and the opposed political philosophies of Communism and Capitalism. It is also a story about the end of the British Empire, and England's eclipse as a major world power by the USA. Set in the crucial years of the mid-1950s, the time of the confusion and humiliation of the Suez Crisis, The Innocent is about the loss of Britain's international role, and its position as a naive, old-fashioned figure in the new world order; it is also about deception, duplicity, ignorance, aggression, and the loss of innocence. McEwan's protagonist is Leonard Marnham, a post-office telephone technician in his mid twenties who has come to Berlin to help tap Russian phone lines, and who falls in love with a 30-year-old German woman, Maria Eckdorf. The early parts of the novel are concerned with Marnham's peripheral role in the Operation Gold project, his relationship with his American superior, Glass, and his wide-eyed love for the experienced Maria. He also learns to love American culture, from Coca-Cola to rock and roll. Marnham is an innocent who becomes involved in various plots and events that are out of his control. For reasons of national policy and private affection, he is spurred on to act in ways he would not choose. His imagination is peopled with cliched figures from the movies or popular war fiction and with various violent conceptions of how a man should behave. In this the book is concerned with levels of understanding and awareness. Bob Glass, Marnham's American boss, explains that everyone thinks they know what the military operation they are involved in is about, but it depends on their level of army clearance.

Everyone thinks they are at the top level of information, but nobody is aware of what they don't know. Glass thinks he has top clearance, but realises he'll never actually know that he does--he'll only find out that he hasn't if and when someone initiates him into a higher level. Goaded by his lover, Marnham kills Maria's abusive ex-husband, Otto, in self-defence, but is then left with the problem of how to dispose of the body. McEwan makes this scene a gut-wrenching tour de force as Leonard dismembers the corpse on Maria's kitchen table (McEwan's metaphor here, he ha

The Innocent by Ian McEwan Jonathan Cape, 12.95 Ian McEwan is one of a number of contemporary British writers who believe they have a responsibility to draw attention to the moral shortcomings of domestic and international politics, particularly the social policies of Margaret Thatcher and the foreign policy of the United States. They include John Mortimer, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Drabble, David Hare, Hanif Kureishi, Fay Weldon, Adam Mars-Jones, Jeanette Winterson, and Ben Elton, and their leader, though neither he nor they would ever dream of describing him as such, is Harold Pinter. They are, with justification, some of the most widely disliked people in Britain. It is important to get clear what it is that makes them so objectionable. For instance, it isn't that, as beneficiaries of Conservative fiscal policy and American military protection, they aren't entitled to criticise them. Mrs Thatcher and a number of her cabinet colleagues are beneficiaries of the social reforms carried out by the 1945-51 Labour governments yet no one suggests that this prohibits them from criticising the welfare state. Nor is it that, as writers, they are somehow overstepping their brief or transgressing some sacred line. Some of the most clear-sighted political commentators, such as Benjamin Disraeli and George Orwell, have also been writers of fiction. What rankles is the suggestion that it is in virtue of their craft that writers like John Mortimer and Margaret Drabble possess some special insight into contemporary politics which is denied to the rest of us. Because of their imaginative powers and heightened sensitivity, they are uniquely qualified to estimate the true worth of our society. Martin Amis has described the novelist's subject-matter as "the cabbalistic signs of modern life", implying that writers can see things which are hidden to others. They are blessed with an 'inner ear' which is perfectly attuned to the pulse of our times; the zeitgeist reveals itself exclusively to them. This belief is clearly just a form of fantastic professional vanity, 'writers' possessing no more moral intelligence in virtue of their vocation than, say, dustmen or traffic wardens.

But what makes this particular form of self-aggrandizement so hard to stomach is that it is packaged in the language of humility. Thus, it is because they possess no illusions about their own frailty and vulnerability that 'writers' are able to take the true measure of things like nuclear weapons; because they don't suffer from the egotistic need to impose themselves on the world it reveals itself to them as it really is. And all the while they are promoting themselves as some kind of secular priesthood. Ian McEwan first made a bid to join this club with his screenplay for The Ploughman's Lunch, Richard Eyre's 1983 film depicting the moral bankruptcy of the Eighties through the eyes of a cynical, self-seeking hack. This was followed by A Child In Time which contains some embarassing stabs at political satire, such as having a Conservative government privatize beggars. A Child In Time won the 1987 Whitbread Novel of the Year award, but true recognition came in June of that year when the Pinters and the Mortimers invited McEwan to join The 20th June Group, the writers' think tank set up to discuss ways of combatting Thatcherism. The Innocent marks McEwan's entrance into the international arena: having done Thatcher's Britain he now takes on the Cold War. It is set in Berlin in 1955 and documents the professional and personal awakening of Leonard Marnham, a 25-year-old electronics engineer from Tottenham. Leonard is in Berlin to work on Operation Gold, an Anglo-American intelligence project to tap Soviet phone lines by tunnelling into the Russian sector. Initially, he is only trusted with unpacking tape recorders, but he soon receives level four security clearance and is recruited by John MacNamee, a British government scientist, to spy on the Americans. Meanwhile he is picked up by Maria Louise Eckdorf, a beautiful thirty-year-old German woman, who initiates him into some of Berlin's other secrets. Before long, the shy, bespectacled hero is completely out of his depth, mixed up in murder, espionage and betrayal. The novel works best on the level of a well-researched historical thriller. McEwan's evocation of post-war Berlin has the smack of authenticity and his fictional narrative is nicely intercut with actual historical events: Operation Gold really did take place and there is even a cameo appearance by George Blake. The atmosphere of impeding catastrophe is well constructed and the climax, in which Leonard frantically tries to dispose of a corpse, is genuinely exciting. However, McEwan is much more ambitious than this and The Innocent is clearly trying to tackle some much bigger issues than the average Len Deighton. As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Leonard and Maria's relationship is intended as nothing less than an allegory of the Cold War itself. For instance, Leonard and Maria can be seen as representatives of their respective countries, the tension between them signifying the tension in Anglo-German relations. Thus, their relationship almost founders when Leonard begins to perceive her as the defeated German nation:

He looked down at Maria, whose eyes were closed, and remembered she was a German. The word had not been entirely prised loose of its associations after all. His first day in Berlin came back to him. German. Enemy. Mortal enemy. Defeated enemy. This last brought with it a shocking thrill. He diverted himself momentarily with the calculation of the total impedance of a certain circuit. Then: she was the defeated, she was his by right, by conquest, by right of unimaginable violence and heroism and sacrifice. What elation! More significantly still, Leonard and Maria are manipulated by Bob Glass, a brash American intelligence officer. In fact, when they eventually do split up it is largely because Maria cannot reveal to Leonard that she has told Glass a secret about their relationship since to do so she would have to reveal that Glass had told her a secret about Leonard. Surely a moral here about the adverse effect of secrecy on international relations. This motif is pushed to ridiculous extremes in the centre-piece of the novel in which Leonard and Maria have to dispose of the corpse of Otto, Maria's ex-husband, whom they have just killed. They decide the best thing to do is to cut Otto into small pieces and pack him into two suitcases. There follow ten, gruesome pages in which Otto's dismemberment is described in language reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft. McEwan goes to some lengths to make Leonard and Maria's decision seem plausible under the circumstances, but clearly his real reason for including this scene is its allegorical significance. The chopping up of Otto's corpse is obviously intended to parallel the partition of Berlin after the Second World War. The central point of The Innocent, then, is that the very same forces which can destroy private relationships - jealousy, suspicion, violence, secrecy - can destroy the relations between states. The division of Europe is due to nothing more than failing to keep a close enough eye on the same dark forces which disrupt our personal lives. Thus, our politics are diseased, but not - as the hint of reconciliation between Leonard and Maria in the final part of the book set in 1987 implies - incurably so. The trouble with this thesis is that it depends on drawing an analogy between the private and the public, the personal and the political. The central conceit of McEwan, Pinter, Drabble, et al, is that a thorough understanding of private life will enable you to understand public life. It is this which makes 'writers' so well-qualified to comment on political matters. But to imagine that political conflicts hinge on exactly the same fulcrum as personal ones is obviously a vast oversimplification; the political just isn't that personal. There are, for instance, such things as genuine, deep-seated, highly complex ideological differences which do not effect private relationships but are absolutely central to politics. Consequently, it is doubtful that a writer like Ian McEwan will be able to say anything interesting about the Cold War until he acquaints himself with these differences. Of course, there is nothing in principle to prevent McEwan and his fellow political authors from saying anything interesting about these issues, though it will require an expertese which they currently don't possess. What is pure poppycock is the suggestion

that, in virtue of their being writers, they already possess an expertese in these areas which the rest of us cannot even approach. And it is poppycock of an acutely irritating kind. Plot Summary of The Innocent "Leonard is a young British man who works for the British Post Office. He is sent to post World War II, pre-Wall Berlin to work on a top secret joint venture between the American and British military. They are digging a tunnel in order to enable them to tap into Russian phone lines for the purposes of spying. Leonard, who is a total innocent when he arrives in Berlin, is thrust into an unfamiliar world of secrecy and mistrust. Not only is he involved in a project to spy on the Russians, but the Americans and British, who are working together, are mistrustful of each other as well. Leonard works under a paranoid American named Bob Glass. Despite Glass's warnings, Leonard gets involved with a German woman named Maria who has a violent ex-husband that turns up occasionally. Through his relationship with Maria, Leonard loses every kind of innocence he had--sexual, moral, patriotic. The circumstances of their relationship lead Leonard not only to murder and covering up that crime, but also to betrayal of his job and country. "

THE INNOCENT By Ian McEwan. 245 pages London: Vintage, 1990 ISBN: 0-09-927709-3 Comments by Bob Corbett October 2001 Twenty five year old Leonard Marnham is sent by the British to work on a secret U.S. project in Berlin in 1955. The Allied project will tunnel from the American sector into the Russian zone to tap phone lines of communications with Moscow. Marnham handles repair and set up work on tape recorders. He falls in love with Maria Eckdorf, a 30 year old German divorcee. Their love relationship involves Marnham with Otto, her brutal exhusband, and leads to a catastrophic murder. Marnham's only other friend is Bob Glass, head of an important section of the American project and Marnham's boss. The love and spy stories intertwine in a crazy fashion, stretching the imagination and yet amuse. McEwan's writing is captivating. He seems to have intimate knowledge of the early years of the Cold War and his Berlin of 1955 is a surreal place. Glass warns Marnham that there are more than 6,000 spies in Berlin and hundreds more people who

buy, sell and broker information on a free-lance basis. Caf Prag in the Russian section is a central meeting place for spies. McEwan's treatment of the spy theme is refreshing. I have read a significant amount of the Luddum-Follet sort of espionage thrillers and they entertain but greatly exceed credibility with the amount of killing, high tech spy toys, and excessive ability of the bad guys to know what the good guys are up to. None of this gets in the way of McEwan's gentle tale. He fascinates with the details of digging the tunnel and process of bringing it up to the Russian phone lives only 6 foot from the surface, and doing so without disturbing the last bits of earthen cover which would cause it all to collapse. No one is killed or beaten, no violence enters the spy story at all. The love relationship between Marnham and Maria is magnificently done. The older once married Maria names him "the innocent" not only because he was a 25 year old inexperienced virgin when they met, but because his whole approach to life was one of a sheltered innocent. McEwan builds the relationship slowly with Marnham learning to be a gentle and considerate lover, totally in keeping with his general demeanor as a stereotypical English gentleman of the period. But in a surprising turn Marnham's odd imagination leads him to suppose Maria wishes him to be rough and forceful in sex and he nearly destroys their love. They get back together and even get engaged, but eventually things go awry with their affair as it does with the tunnel project. McEwan explore those horrible difficulties with intelligence, sensitivity and care, suggesting strongly that love is not easily gained or maintained. I didn't find The Innocent to be a profound book nor an exceptional read. The spy story was interesting, although not always gripping, and refreshing in its mundaneness, a job being done well. The love story had more depth, but I ultimately found it unsatisfying. Marnham's relatively easy bowing out of Maria's life after seeming being so deeply in love was just not convincing. However, I do recommend it as a quick and fairly interesting story, better than the run of the mill popular novel.

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