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 ex-husband, 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. Café 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.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett