Twenty-five-year-old Leonard Marnharm, a post office technician, has been sent to Cold War West Berlin as part of a British intelligence team working with Americans to build an underground surveillance tunnel and tap into encrypted Soviet phone lines. He works directly under Bob Glass–a rude and loud American with a critical eye to anyone incapable of the level of secrecy working with Operation Gold requires. Leonard is young and naive, new to worldly matters, and struggles at first with the independence of adulthood and the responsibility of secrecy his new post requires of him.
But as the novel progresses, Leonard begins to shed his shroud of innocence. His first sexual encounter with Berlin native Maria Eckdorf, and subsequent intimacies of the relationship, extend into odd, politically charged fantasies. Influenced by the gravity of his station, the ruins of a post-war city, and immature sexual desires, Leonard’s youthful exuberance turns dark as he attempts to make real the role play long gone unchecked by the logic of fantasy. But the relationship must remain a secret from the prying eyes of Operation Gold and the drunken jealousy of Maria’s abusive ex-husband Otto.
In this coming of age story, Leonard not only explores the sexuality of adulthood, but also the politics of culture between nations still feeling the repercussions of war. McEwan develops careful character studies, juxtaposing class-critical British Leonard with the brash, gruff American Glass and worldly, practical German Maria. On the eve of his engagement to Maria, the intimacies of their relationship meet with the intimacies of his political secrets in frightening turn of events ending with the intrusion of a violently drunk Otto. After he attacks, Maria and Leonard respond in self-defense, accidentally killing him in the process. Knowing their innocence, but acutely aware of Otto’s favoritism with the local authorities, Leonard and Maria make a grotesque decision that will forever damage an already tarnished relationship.
As the couple commits to their gruesome task, events bring Leonard back to the underground tunnel. With cases in hand, having evaded a dog eager for the chopped up Otto wrapped carefully inside, Leonard manages to pull rank and successfully abandon the weighty German inside, allowing him to leave, mission accomplished. But he remains unaware of the betrayal waiting for him at home. In a letter, postmarked 30 years later, we discover the truth of Leonard’s youthful suspicions and an aged perspective of his relationship with Maria and the ruminations of a country only beginning to heal.
The Innocent is part thriller and part romance pulled tightly together with McEwan’s stunningly insightful, alluring, and invasive prose. The twist at the end is unlike any of those in his other novels (although I’ve only read four others)–completely unpredictable and shocking in the bizarre events surrounding Leonard’s initiation into adult society. But it retains the dark, provocative undercurrent of McEwan’s familiar imagination that takes the reader into a highly realized adventure of human psychology and the logic of desperation.
Release Date: December 29, 1998
Reviewed Format: trade paperback