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The Innocent (1990)
Granta Best British Novelists (1983)
Typically in a Cold War thriller, particularly one written by a Brit, you'd expect the "innocent" to be a dull-witted American anti-Communist, who comes along, wreaks havoc, and leaves, all the while deluding himself that he's made the world safer for democracy (see Graham Greene's The Quiet American). But in Ian McEwan's novel, the "innocent" of the title is Leonard Marnham, a young British telephone technician, who has come to a divided Berlin in 1955, to work on one of the great intelligence coups of the Cold War, Operation Gold, a tap on the Soviet telephone lines in a tunnel beneath the city. Not only is Leonard an innocent when it comes to superpower espionage, he's also a neophyte when it comes to women, so when Maria, an attractive German woman, approaches him in a nightclub and then begins a torrid affair with him, he's too dense to see why it might raise the suspicions.
Inevitably, the story concerns the loss of innocence, and Leonard begins to change in some frightening ways. Chiefly, he begins to associate himself with the conquering West and Maria with the defeated Germany, treating her with mounting brutality in their lovemaking, until one day he goes too far. But the lovers make it through this rough patch only to face a crisis when they accidentally kill Maria's ex-husband. This event triggers a catastrophe of international dimensions, as innocent, now become guilty, brings down everything around him. There are final ironies here that it would be unfair to prospective readers to discuss; suffice it to say that it turns out that everyone else has been just as innocent of the real world as Leonard seemed, or at least as easily duped.
The book is an adequate spy novel, with some interesting true background--Operation Gold was a real project--and some entertaining psychological twists and turns. But in a strange way those final ironies serve to blunt the impact of the book, revealing that however corrupting were the effects of the Cold War, we in the West were never sufficiently corrupt to understand what was really going on.
-READING GROUP GUIDE : The Innocent by Ian McEwan (Random House)
-REVIEW : of The Innocent by Ian McEwan (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of The Innocent (1990) (George Stade, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of The Innocent (Florian Schnurer, East West Conflict in English Literature)
OPERATION GOLD :