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Novel set in BERLIN (the quintessential Berlin novel?)

11th February 2014

The Innocent by Ian McEwan: novel set in Berlin.

The cover of this novel set in Berlin (in the Vintage edition) shows a green Trabbie superimposed upon a sepia-tinted picture of the Brandenburg Gate, driving eastwards along Unter den Linden, having crossed from western Berlin into the Russian sector. Berlin is the backdrop to the novel, but perhaps more in terms of mood and atmosphere than actual places, for much of the action takes place in one of two claustrophobic locations that could be anywhere in the world: one is a tunnel and the other a tiny and very cold flat.

0099277093.01.ZTZZZZZZThe tunnel has been dug by British and American sappers from west to east Berlin to tap Russian telephone lines. The English male hero, Leonard, is a somewhat naive post office engineer sent to Berlin to set up the tunnel’s tape recording equipment. The Berlin he encounters is not the bustling optimistic young city of today, but the grim city of 1955, a city that still bears the scars of the recent war in its bomb-damaged streets. When Leonard is taken out by his American colleague for a night on the town, he is told ‘we’re crossing the Tiergarten now … there’s hardly a tree to be seen. What the bombs didn’t destroy, the Berliners burnt to keep warm’. Everywhere there is evidence of a conquered city.

They cross into the Russian sector to sample warm sweet Russian ‘champagne’ then head back west to a nightclub where Leonard dances with Maria, the German female heroine. In Maria’s tiny and freezing cold flat in the Kreuzberg district of the city they subsequently make love, quarrel, make up and celebrate their engagement. When Maria’s ex husband turns up at the flat drunk and jealous, he ends up dead. Leonard and Maria are innocent, but they do not think they will be believed. The way they choose to dispose of the body (not for the squeamish) which precipitates a denouement that is entirely unexpected, but entirely plausible.

The novel has two endings. In the first, Leonard boards a plane for England, catching a final glimpse of Maria that makes him believe she has betrayed him and was all the time sleeping with Leonard’s bear-like American colleague. The second sees Leonard returning to Berlin in 1987, revisiting the site of the tunnel where he once worked, now a one-hundred foot long trench thick with weeds, as he reads a letter from Maria telling him the truth about the final days of their life together in Berlin.

Both endings leave you wondering which of the characters is ‘The Innocent’ of the title. The answer is probably all of them, except for the only non-fictional character in the novel, the spy George Blake – who arrives at a crucial point in the novel, makes only fleeting appearances, but nevertheless plays a pivotal role that is revealed just fifteen lines from the novel’s end.

All in all, this is a most satisfying read about a city that looks very different from the one you will encounter today; and yet, even in its bomb-flattened state, there is something about the place that is still quintessentially and recognisably Berlin.

Christopher for the TripFiction Team

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