If you have ever lived in Germany, you will know three things: why its language offers endless riches to those who wish to adore it; why its politics, briefly the nadir of humanity, have resulted in the model state for the rest of Europe; and why it has produced the most magnificent music the world has ever known. Perhaps these factors mean little; after all, Germany may have wine, women, and song, but it also has a reputation for precision and aloofness that frightens those who spurn discipline. Since I spent many unforgettable years in the Federal Republic, I have always understood that old Latin phrase about home being that place in which you feel completely yourself. My nostalgia, for better or worse, extends well past my personal experiences and into the early postwar years when the German economy began to recover at a rate unprecedented in history (a period still known in German as "the Miracle"). Why I feel this way I cannot know; I have never loved a German; I have no blood relatives of Teutonic stock; I did not grow up imbued with any particular fondness for this controversial bastion of order and knowledge, and some readers will surely smirk if I mention something about a prior existence. Whatever the case, I firmly believe that we do not choose what we love, it chooses us. Which brings us to this novel about a delicate time.
Our year is 1955 and our protagonist is the meek Englishman Leonard Marnham. Twenty-five and not well-traveled either in persons or places, Leonard hails from a plain family of bourgeois attitudes that cannot so easily be shed. What separates him from heroes of other compressed Bildungsromans is the mere presence of what we may term humility and what may be better described as incredulity: at numerous moments in his narrative, Leonard simply cannot believe that the world is real and pummeling him with all its ambiguities. As the story opens Leonard, at home a post office employee with some expertise in the development of telephones, is dispatched to postwar Berlin to collaborate on a project so preposterous it must stem from the annals of historical truth: an East-West tunnel, from an American military compound, with the intention of siphoning communist phone conversations. I shall not offer to explain what kind of tunnel the erstwhile Allies, in conjunction with the West Germans, were attempting to build at that time, its range of effectiveness, or why anyone ever thought they would be able to maintain the digging and signal interception in secrecy (never mind that the Allies do not have the personnel to make this a time-sensitive method of espionage). Suffice it to say that the whole endeavor seems like the first, or at least the first known to us because it is the first known to Leonard, of many overwrought stratagems that can only result in heightened tension and a minimal amount of ground gained on a battlefield spread over three or four continents.
Despite his obvious sincerity, friendliness and warmth do not come easily to our hero, who ends up spending many mornings eating alone in the compound's cafeteria. One of his cohorts is Bob Glass, a vulgar American intelligence officer who does not live up to his surname in either fragility or transparency. He instead embodies that other vitreous meaning, a reflection, if an opposite one. While Leonard is callow, prudish, and staunchly British in his perpetual embarrassment over the awkwardness of human interaction, the thirtysomething Glass is back-slappingly loud and vulgar (his smug coercion of Leonard suggests a porn director). Glass will constantly appear to be looking over Leonard's shoulder, a jurisdiction that extends into his private life and the young man's affair with Maria Eckdorf. We cannot be sure from where McEwan, a researcher nonpareil, culled this thirty-one-year-old divorcée with no real personality apart from being a vulnerable woman who wishes to escape her native country, either physically or just in her mind. Nevertheless, The Innocent crests when these two are alone and trying to make their love eternal, most gloriously in chapter six, Leonard's first visit to Maria's flat:
She sat across from him and they warmed their hands around the big mugs. He knew from experience that unless he made a formidable effort, a pattern was waiting to impose itself: a polite inquiry would elicit a polite response and no other question. Have you lived here long? Do you travel far to your work? Is it your afternoon off? The catechism would have begun. Only silences would interrupt the relentless tread of question and answer. They would be calling to each other over immense distances, from adjacent mountain peaks. Finally he would be desperate for the relief of heading away with his own thoughts, after the awkward goodbyes. Even now they had already retreated from the intensity of their greeting. He had asked her about her tea making. One more like that, and there would be nothing left to do .... It was an assumption, lodged deep beyond examination or even awareness, that the responsibility for the event was entirely his. If he could not find the easy words to bring them closer, the defeat would be his alone.
There are in this scene dozens of magnificent observations about two people who could be together, if they could simply find a hook, a joke, a commonality amidst a world of differences. Apart from three short consecutive sentences that overdo an ironical situation, this remains one of the finest chapters I have ever read in any book, and may count as McEwan's crowning achievement as a novelist. Their relationship blossoms ("when they were out walking they compared themselves favorably with other young couples they saw ... it gave them pleasure to think how they resembled them, how they were all part of one benign, comforting process") then collides one regrettable evening with Leonard's misplaced notion of masculinity. This leads him to question how he comports himself with his work colleagues, his snoopy British neighbor Blake, and even his beloved parents who he cannot quite believe no longer tend to him. The way Leonard writes to them, without affect or detail, implies that he cannot embrace or open up to them because his own life is unembraceable and closed. Why closed? Perhaps owing to that most melancholy of situations, his embarrassment at the immaturity of his ways; after all, he is a recently deflowered twenty-five-year-old. Unsure of how he is supposed to act, as exemplified by his horrible assault on Maria, he certainly cannot convey subtlety or meaning of existence to the preceding generation. But as youth is wasted on the young, so is wisdom on the wise, and Leonard is far too plain in his thinking to imagine a world terribly unlike the one he is in right this very moment. In other words, he can neither abjure his realm nor get enough of it.
Much later the novel shunts onto a track at which I shall not hint, but it spoils nothing to mention that one dramatic possibility usually present in these types of tales – Maria as a double agent – is not cultivated. Consequently the love story slips into a metaphor for the spy story, or vice versa, which is why loving a woman and a country are the two strongest and most treacherous emotions a non-parent can experience. We understand why Leonard loves Maria and we realize that Maria needs someone like Leonard who is unbesmirched by war. But we are never really convinced that Maria could love Leonard, a fear sadly shared by our hero. At one point he laments another disconnect between the couple:
She was beautiful, he knew that, but he could not feel it. Her beauty did not affect him the way he wanted it to. He wanted to be moved by her, and for her to remember how she felt about him.
Why Leonard arrives at such hippish conclusions provides much more than an allegory of Germany itself, the conquered and divided land, subjugated to the winners' whims, yet not entirely west or east, because such parables, while appealing to readers of quick judgment, are ultimately unrewarding. Leonard rushes to judge Glass and Maria, and yet waits patiently for the rest of mankind to be pleasant to him before he settles his opinions – a recipe for disappointment if there ever were one. And for that and other reasons the fourth thing you will know is why a cobbler should never quit his last.