Tuesday, June 04, 2013

the last book I read

The Innocent by Ian McEwan.

Leonard Marnham is a bit of a nerd, or at least he would be if that word had been invented in 1955. He's an electrician, assigned to an Anglo-American surveillance team in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. It turns out this "surveillance" is a bit more espionage-y than Leonard had been led to believe, as it becomes clear that what the team are planning to do is dig a tunnel under the border separating the American and Russian sectors of post-war Berlin and tap into the Russians' telephone transmissions via some lines that conveniently run just beneath the surface. Leonard's job is to set up and maintain the huge bank of tape recorders that capture the transmissions until they can be passed elsewhere to be deciphered.

Leonard lives with his parents in England, so the exotic surroundings of Berlin are a bit of an eye-opener, as is the forced proximity to lots of those awful brash loud American types, in particular Bob Glass who offers himself as Leonard's contact and mentor. More interesting avenues for shedding his innocence present themselves in the form of Maria, a slightly older German woman who takes a shine to Leonard and initiates him into the exciting world of sex.

Progress down the tunnel towards the Russian sector continues, as does Leonard's progress down Maria's "tunnel", hem hem. There are a few bumps in the road, though, principally in the form of Maria's no-good drunken ex-husband Otto who turns up periodically to beat Maria up and then disappear again. On one of these occasions he passes out in a wardrobe in a drunken stupor and is only discovered when he wakes up while Leonard and Maria are in bed together. Somewhat disoriented (and presumably hungover) and none too pleased at finding his ex-wife in bed with another man, he attacks Leonard and Maria, and in a bid to subdue him they accidentally kill him.

So now there's a body to dispose of. And in these paranoid times there's not much point in going to the police and trying to explain things. So Leonard and Maria have to find a way of getting rid of the body, and short of making a casserole or spending the next fortnight flushing slivers of Otto down the toilet there's really only one way to do it: cut him up and take him somewhere where he can be disposed of. Leonard acquires a couple of large equipment cases from work and he and Maria set about their gruesome task. Trouble is, casually disposing of two giant suitcases full of body parts in plastic wrapping isn't as easy as you might assume, especially when Leonard runs into both his downstairs neighbour and Bob Glass on the way out of his building, and Glass unceremoniously throws the cases in his car and speeds off to the tunnel to ensure their safe return.

So now the cases are stashed under a table at the American end of the tunnel, with the possibility of being opened at any minute, and the near-certainty of the smell provoking suspicion within a couple of days. So Leonard does the only thing he feels he can do, and betrays the tunnel's location to a Russian spy in the hope that in the confusion minor details like a dismembered corpse in some suitcases might be overlooked. Sure enough the tunnel is "discovered", but it turns out that it wasn't Leonard's information that led to its discovery, but the treachery of his downstairs neighbour, George Blake.

With no reason to stay around, his and Maria's relationship having been soured by their complicity in the Otto business, and every reason to leave the country, Leonard heads back to England. A brief sighting of Glass and Maria together in the departure area of the airport as he leaves arouses his suspicions and he fails to respond to any of Maria's subsequent letters.

Flash-forward to 1987 and Leonard is back in Berlin. It's the tail-end of the Cold War now, and - although Leonard doesn't know it - only two years from the Hoff-inspired tearing down of the Berlin Wall. He's come back because he's received a letter from Maria - after the war she married Bob Glass and moved to America with him, but now Bob Glass is dead and she can tell Leonard the truth without betraying the promise she made to Bob. Apparently Maria had confessed everything to Bob and he'd arranged - among all the confusion of the tunnel break-in - to get the contents of the cases hushed up and any investigation dropped. So as Leonard scouts around the remains of the buildings where he'd worked 30 years previously he contemplates heading to America and turning up on Maria's suburban doorstep, just to see what would happen.

The Innocent was published in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and fills a gap between two of my favourite McEwans, The Child In Time (1987) and Black Dogs (1992). It shares some themes with Black Dogs, mainly the long-term repercussions of the war on those who participated in it, and the long shadow cast by the events that took place during the war on the following decades. That it's probably not as good as either of those books it at least partly down to the grating gear-shift just over halfway through where after setting up some interesting espionage background and introducing us to the main protagonists the book suddenly takes a swerve into Shallow Grave territory, even down to the trip to the department store to buy body-dismemberment tools. This bit (which McEwan later regretted) seems like a throwback to McEwan's early stuff like The Cement Garden and the short story collections, even as the rest of the book is doing the sort of convincing period stuff that later turned up in Atonement.

There are obvious echoes of other espionage novels as well, most obviously The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in which Berlin and the Wall also feature heavily. McEwan is more concerned with the characters and less with the procedure and the multiple layers of deceit than le CarrĂ©, though. It turns out there really was a tunnelling operation to tap into the Russian phone lines, incidentally, and George Blake really was the man who betrayed it.

The Innocent was filmed in 1993, starring some heavyweight names, though also some slightly incongruous casting - Welshman Anthony Hopkins as brash American Bob Glass, Swedo-Italian Isabella Rosselini as German woman Maria (I'd pictured her as looking more like Diane Kruger) and American Campbell Scott as quintessential Englishman Leonard Marnham.

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