A British novel set in Berlin during one of the more glacial spells of the Cold War — circa 1955 — would seem a good bet to strike a series of bleak, gray, damp, morally ambiguous notes in the manner of John le Carré, Graham Greene, and other purveyors of cold comfort. And a novel by Ian McEwan, author of The Cement Garden, seems likely to offer something in the way of outstanding gruesomeness. The Innocent doesn’t disappoint even the most eager-to-be-disappointed reader in these respects. Yet it is neither fashionable morbidity nor sheer perversity that moves me to say that the book is a pleasure to read — a haunting black comedy with a silver lining, charged with psychological complexity, sex, and suspense, full of narrative cunning and precise, darkly witty prose. But start reading it and you will probably nd yourself in the same awkward position of having to admit you are enjoying it even while you periodically recoil in disgust. I highly recommend it to everyone who is not about to sit down to dinner.
The Innocent starts out innocently enough. Leonard Marnham, a naïve, undercon dent, virginal 25-year-old English electrician who had been living in London with his parents, has arrived amid the rubble and barricades of occupied Berlin. He has been hired to work on a joint British-American surveillance scheme that involves tunneling under the Soviet sector. He is immediately enveloped in the layers of deception surrounding the project, which appears in different guises as one ascends to higher and higher security clearances. Marnham’s blunt, abrupt American superior, Bob Glass, explains: ”Everybody thinks his clearance is the highest there is, everyone thinks he has the nal story. You only hear of a higher level the moment you’re being told about it.” Consider this a parable for readers, critics, and connoisseurs of philosophical resonance, and consider the novel a fable full of parables.
In his childlike innocence Marnham shares the standard British view of his American colleagues. They are, he thinks — watching them cavort with footballs and softballs — innocent, overgrown children. Yet he is easily cowed by the breezy and profane competence of Glass, and he seems destined to dither and stumble apologetically through the novel. Enter the mystery woman, a bold blond German beauty named Maria Eckdorf, who at rst seems to be cast in Marlene Dietrich’s role in The Blue Angel. After picking Marnham up at a nightclub, she becomes fascinated with his virginal innocence and apparent harmlessness, especially since she has a drunken ex-husband named Otto who drops by her gloomy at occasionally to demand money and beat her up. Eventually Marnham is backing out of her apartment and away from her seductive overtures, and she is playfully stealing his glasses and luring him back in. They end up in bed, with Marnham an awkward but eager student of undreamt-of things. He gets more than he bargained for. After a few months of passion they announce their engagement, and while celebrating in bed they are suddenly aware that there’s a man hidden in the wardrobe — the insanely jealous Otto, drunk and for the moment fast asleep.
What follows is, to put it mildly, intense. The reader has to wade through pages of gore — a fierce, face-chewing fight, a murder, a drawn-out anatomy lesson of a dismemberment, all rendered in meticulous, loving detail. But the brilliance of the rest of the book is well worth wading for. Marnham winds up hauling two very heavy trunks around Berlin with no clear idea of what to do with them, and this is played awlessly for both farce and suspense. The shocks and comic reversals continue through the convergence of Marnham’s dilemma with Cold War espionage intrigues and into the unexpectedly hopeful denouement, in an epilogue set in contemporary Berlin with the Wall about to come tumbling down.
The book pulls you along, kicking and screaming if necessary, but it’s far more than a very intelligent thriller. It’s a very odd love story, and the evocation of attraction, lust, misapprehension, estrangement, and reconciliation between Marnham and Maria is consistently disturbing and profound. So are the musings of the honorable and not-so-innocent Glass, who early in the book lets us in on one of the book’s secrets: Secrets make us human, make up our individuality and separate consciousness — especially guilty secrets. We have language — and novels like this one — to disclose our secrets and ourselves.