Ian McEwan began his literary career as a dealer in shock and body horror but despite still managing to squeeze in a nine-page dismemberment sequence that makes you want to claw out your corneas it is with The Innocent (1990) that he grows up and starts to truly fulfil his early promise. This is a deceptively self aware and complex novel, densely plotted and boldly making use of cliché and preconception. An initially somewhat conventional espionage potboiler turns out to be a mere framing device for something much more intriguing. The broken Berlin of the 1950s and – briefly – 1980s is fully exploited by McEwan as he steers young Leonard Marnham through a dread-filled Cold-War plot and a personal fall from grace.
The painfully English, prelapsarian Marnham is posted to Berlin to take part in a desperately underhand communications-tapping exercise being carried out by an uneasy alliance of irritating, shiny Yanks and dentally-challenged Brits but his mundane role is ultimately a mere stepping stone into a world of apparently infinite security clearance levels and mutual mistrust. As he is pulled deeper into the intrigue, he faces the added complication of the attentions of an experienced older Berliner. This twenty-five year old virgin, clearly a fellow who had hitherto tucked his vest into his underpants, thus has his innocence shattered on both fronts
It is his first sojourn into a Berliner Kneipe though, that the modern foreign visitor to the city will most easily identify with. Marnham runs the full gamut from rude waiter, through Arctic stares and waiting nearly ten minutes for a drink, as the Bierschaum is crafted with agonising precision. Despite a smattering of school German, young Marnham is horrified to find himself in the vicinity of a gaggle of grizzly drunkards who, he thinks, are reminiscing or even boasting about atrocities committed only a few years previous.
It appears at first that McEwan has resorted to something of a clichéd scenario in order to paint his man as a fish out of water. Much later though, as his German improves, Leonard somewhat inevitably begins to understand that the same barflies are just talking about the weather and the poor quality coffee – “the usual pub grumble.” Not genocide, after all then. It is a glorious moment, as McEwan takes the assumptions, preconceptions and expectations of both his reader and protagonist and shatters them in one deft turnaround.
Through Leonard we experience both sides of the American influence on the soon to be walled city. Their childlike brashness, their manner of chewing gum, their lack of uptight mid-20th century British attitudes – all of this at least initially rankles the stuffy Marnham. Subsequent, however to his concurrent sexual awakening at the hands of Maria, the Kotti-dwelling femme fatale, and his exposure to the music so popular amongst his boisterous American counterparts. Marnham begins to loosen up.
His previous disgust on encountering – several times daily – a huddle of large, beaming American faces around his office wireless taking a brief pause from softball practice whenever Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ comes on gradually dissipates: “But with repetition, the thumping rhythm and the virile insistence of the guitar began to stir him, and he moved from hating the song to pretending to hate it.” Haley’s arrival along with those of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry on the American sector radio station dazzles him as the first sparks of a cultural revolution. A brief trip home at Christmas to crushingly dull England–still locked in post-war torpor–is held up in sharp relief to his new life. West Berlin may be superficially pock-marked and forlorn, but at least there Marnham has access to about as much sex and rock n’roll as he can handle.
The near post-apocalyptic city is put to enthusiastic use by McEwan and he almost over-eggs the pudding, placing Marnham in almost every situation a young foreign man could find himself in that time and place. The tale is book-ended however, by two masterful descriptions, both vivid and terrible and set more than thirty years apart. The rubble may have been cleared away by the time Marnham arrives but the scars are ubiquitous in this ghostly landscape. Near his apartment, he is confronted with the “three walled rooms hanging in the air” and a “sawtooth impression of a staircase zigzagging five stories up.” When the narrative shifts to the last days of 1980s West-Berlin, however, and we encounter the replacement Kottbusser Tor, with its glue-huffing malcontents and appalling architecture, the question of whether or not progress has been made is deliberately left open.
Image Credits: 1. Bundesarchiv 2. Heiko Burkhardt 3. Bettmann/Corbis 4. Danipuntocom