McEwan is always strong when it comes to evoking a particular time and place, whether it be early 1960’s in “On Chesil Beach”, the Dunkirk evacuation (amongst others) in “Atonement”, or early 1970’s MI5 in “Sweet Tooth”, just to mention a few. The thing that jumps out from that short list for me is how precise this timing is – it is not a decade, or a generation which is invoked, but a very exact point in time and place. In “The Innocent” the setting is Berlin, 1955. Berlin is an occupied city, still literally shell-shocked, reconstruction is barely underway although the Wall has yet to go up – again giving us a very exact moment in time, a turning point in the way “On Chesil Beach” is timed between the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles first EP. The city is a microcosm of the Cold War and into this volatile environment Leonard Marnham, the eponymous innocent, a British telephone engineer, is dropped. Leonard is an everyman figure, innocent in many ways – sexually, politically, socially – and although he is quickly absorbed into an American plan to tap Russian telephone messages out of Berlin, he makes a terrible, indiscreet spy.
As a standard Cold War spy story in the Le Carre model, the introduction of a femme fatale, Maria, who approaches Leonard in a night club, comes on cue. Maria seduces Leonard by the book, and very soon he is under her spell. Leonard is too young to have fought in the war, but 30 year old, divorced Maria, survivor of the brutalities of the occupation of Berlin, is a wiser, more mature character who quickly becomes the senior figure in the relationship. Leonard develops a fairly sick fantasy in which he is an occupying soldier who forces himself on the helpless, vulnerable Maria. When he tries to act this out in a disturbing scene she is unsurprisingly repelled, and their relationship only survives by the intervention of Leonard’s American senior officer, Bob Glass.
The (protracted) climax of the novel comes with the return of Maria’s brutish ex-husband, Otto, a bit of a Teutonic caricature. Leonard and Maria are the only ones surprised by his return, and the denouncement is equally predictable, albeit the brutality of the episode is detailed and relentless. There then follows a scene when Leonard tries to dispose of the body (sorry, spoilers) and ends up leaving it in two suitcases in the tunnel dug to intercept the Russian telephone lines, on the Russian side of the border. When he then passes on the secret of the tunnel to the Russians, in a desperate attempt to avoid the body being found by the Americans, his fall from grace is complete, his last innocence lost.
The post-script “30 years later” chapter, when Leonard returns to Berlin just before the Wall comes down, is probably unnecessary, but does give Maria a voice, finally.
Although this is relatively early McEwan, a little derivative in its setting and characterisation, his potential as a mature novelist shines through. if you want to explore early McEwan start here rather than the award winning but badly flawed “Amsterdam”.