Friday, November 25, 2005

Review: Berlin Books - The Innocent

I wanted to end the week with a second installment in the 'Books on Berlin' series, so here it is...

The Innocent: Ian McEwan

One of the finest British writers of his generation, the Booker Prize-winning Ian McEwan published The Innocent in 1990, which must have been a publishers dream time to put out a book set in Berlin. The Innocent follows the arrival of a young British engineer called Leonard who arrives in the city in the 1950s to work on a top secret tunnel the Americans were building into the Soviet sector in order to tap into the communications lines of the Red Army and its political command.

Once there he meets and falls in love with a German woman, who has a lot to teach the 25 year-old British 'Innocent'. These are the two main storylines and they intersect at different points, such when Leonard's new girlfriend falls under suspicion of the Americans because her parents live in the Soviet-controlled Pankow, and not least with the climax of the tale which, so as not to spoil it, will be left unexplained.

For me the most powerful aspect of the Innocent is the way McEwan shows how one moment, or a series of tiny, insignificant choices, can result in absolutely horrifying, life-changing conclusions. The development of Leonard from The Innocent of the title into what he becomes by the end is both dramatic and yet subtly done. There is not one particular moment where Leonard changes, rather it is a number of events that lead him to the climatic scene, and even there he is more than a little unlucky. At times you really dislike Leonard, and at others you simply feel sorry for him - here was a man that got out of his depth, and had no experience in how to deal with it.

The Berlin of the novel is divided but not yet separated, and the sense of the era is well done - both in the Cold War tensions of the project Leonard is engaged in, to his almost triumphal glee on arrival, despite his naivete, of being a Brit, and therefore one of the victors, walking through the vanquished city that was still being rebuilt.

Ian McEwan may have gone on to have written better - or at least more acclaimed - books, but if you want an intelligent cold war thriller, a literary spy novel, tense and beautifully written, and you want it about Berlin, then you could do much, much worse than this.

'The Innocent is of course available at Amazon, but if you are in Berlin, go and see if you can find it at one of the English Bookshops.

More Books on Berlin.

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