Twitter Facebook RSS Feed
No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Monday 25th October 2004

The Innocent by Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape, £12.95

Ian McEwan is one of a number of contemporary British writers who believe they have a responsibility to draw attention to the moral shortcomings of domestic and international politics, particularly the social policies of Margaret Thatcher and the foreign policy of the United States. They include John Mortimer, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Drabble, David Hare, Hanif Kureishi, Fay Weldon, Adam Mars-Jones, Jeanette Winterson, and Ben Elton, and their leader, though neither he nor they would ever dream of describing him as such, is Harold Pinter. They are, with justification, some of the most widely disliked people in Britain.

It is important to get clear what it is that makes them so objectionable. For instance, it isn't that, as beneficiaries of Conservative fiscal policy and American military protection, they aren't entitled to criticise them. Mrs Thatcher and a number of her cabinet colleagues are beneficiaries of the social reforms carried out by the 1945-51 Labour governments yet no one suggests that this prohibits them from criticising the welfare state. Nor is it that, as writers, they are somehow overstepping their brief or transgressing some sacred line. Some of the most clear-sighted political commentators, such as Benjamin Disraeli and George Orwell, have also been writers of fiction.

What rankles is the suggestion that it is in virtue of their craft that writers like John Mortimer and Margaret Drabble possess some special insight into contemporary politics which is denied to the rest of us. Because of their imaginative powers and heightened sensitivity, they are uniquely qualified to estimate the true worth of our society. Martin Amis has described the novelist's subject-matter as "the cabbalistic signs of modern life", implying that writers can see things which are hidden to others. They are blessed with an 'inner ear' which is perfectly attuned to the pulse of our times; the zeitgeist reveals itself exclusively to them.

This belief is clearly just a form of fantastic professional vanity, 'writers' possessing no more moral intelligence in virtue of their vocation than, say, dustmen or traffic wardens. But what makes this particular form of self-aggrandizement so hard to stomach is that it is packaged in the language of humility. Thus, it is because they possess no illusions about their own frailty and vulnerability that 'writers' are able to take the true measure of things like nuclear weapons; because they don't suffer from the egotistic need to impose themselves on the world it reveals itself to them as it really is. And all the while they are promoting themselves as some kind of secular priesthood.

Ian McEwan first made a bid to join this club with his screenplay for The Ploughman's Lunch, Richard Eyre's 1983 film depicting the moral bankruptcy of the Eighties through the eyes of a cynical, self-seeking hack. This was followed by A Child In Time which contains some embarassing stabs at political satire, such as having a Conservative government privatize beggars. A Child In Time won the 1987 Whitbread Novel of the Year award, but true recognition came in June of that year when the Pinters and the Mortimers invited McEwan to join The 20th June Group, the writers' think tank set up to discuss ways of combatting Thatcherism.

The Innocent marks McEwan's entrance into the international arena: having done Thatcher's Britain he now takes on the Cold War. It is set in Berlin in 1955 and documents the professional and personal awakening of Leonard Marnham, a 25-year-old electronics engineer from Tottenham. Leonard is in Berlin to work on Operation Gold, an Anglo-American intelligence project to tap Soviet phone lines by tunnelling into the Russian sector. Initially, he is only trusted with unpacking tape recorders, but he soon receives level four security clearance and is recruited by John MacNamee, a British government scientist, to spy on the Americans. Meanwhile he is picked up by Maria Louise Eckdorf, a beautiful thirty-year-old German woman, who initiates him into some of Berlin's other secrets. Before long, the shy, bespectacled hero is completely out of his depth, mixed up in murder, espionage and betrayal.

The novel works best on the level of a well-researched historical thriller. McEwan's evocation of post-war Berlin has the smack of authenticity and his fictional narrative is nicely intercut with actual historical events: Operation Gold really did take place and there is even a cameo appearance by George Blake. The atmosphere of impeding catastrophe is well constructed and the climax, in which Leonard frantically tries to dispose of a corpse, is genuinely exciting. However, McEwan is much more ambitious than this and The Innocent is clearly trying to tackle some much bigger issues than the average Len Deighton. As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Leonard and Maria's relationship is intended as nothing less than an allegory of the Cold War itself.

For instance, Leonard and Maria can be seen as representatives of their respective countries, the tension between them signifying the tension in Anglo-German relations. Thus, their relationship almost founders when Leonard begins to perceive her as the defeated German nation:

He looked down at Maria, whose eyes were closed, and remembered she was a German. The word had not been entirely prised loose of its associations after all. His first day in Berlin came back to him. German. Enemy. Mortal enemy. Defeated enemy. This last brought with it a shocking thrill. He diverted himself momentarily with the calculation of the total impedance of a certain circuit. Then: she was the defeated, she was his by right, by conquest, by right of unimaginable violence and heroism and sacrifice. What elation!

More significantly still, Leonard and Maria are manipulated by Bob Glass, a brash American intelligence officer. In fact, when they eventually do split up it is largely because Maria cannot reveal to Leonard that she has told Glass a secret about their relationship since to do so she would have to reveal that Glass had told her a secret about Leonard. Surely a moral here about the adverse effect of secrecy on international relations.

This motif is pushed to ridiculous extremes in the centre-piece of the novel in which Leonard and Maria have to dispose of the corpse of Otto, Maria's ex-husband, whom they have just killed. They decide the best thing to do is to cut Otto into small pieces and pack him into two suitcases. There follow ten, gruesome pages in which Otto's dismemberment is described in language reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft. McEwan goes to some lengths to make Leonard and Maria's decision seem plausible under the circumstances, but clearly his real reason for including this scene is its allegorical significance. The chopping up of Otto's corpse is obviously intended to parallel the partition of Berlin after the Second World War.

The central point of The Innocent, then, is that the very same forces which can destroy private relationships - jealousy, suspicion, violence, secrecy - can destroy the relations between states. The division of Europe is due to nothing more than failing to keep a close enough eye on the same dark forces which disrupt our personal lives. Thus, our politics are diseased, but not - as the hint of reconciliation between Leonard and Maria in the final part of the book set in 1987 implies - incurably so.

The trouble with this thesis is that it depends on drawing an analogy between the private and the public, the personal and the political. The central conceit of McEwan, Pinter, Drabble, et al, is that a thorough understanding of private life will enable you to understand public life. It is this which makes 'writers' so well-qualified to comment on political matters. But to imagine that political conflicts hinge on exactly the same fulcrum as personal ones is obviously a vast oversimplification; the political just isn't that personal. There are, for instance, such things as genuine, deep-seated, highly complex ideological differences which do not effect private relationships but are absolutely central to politics. Consequently, it is doubtful that a writer like Ian McEwan will be able to say anything interesting about the Cold War until he acquaints himself with these differences.

Of course, there is nothing in principle to prevent McEwan and his fellow political authors from saying anything interesting about these issues, though it will require an expertese which they currently don't possess. What is pure poppycock is the suggestion that, in virtue of their being writers, they already possess an expertese in these areas which the rest of us cannot even approach. And it is poppycock of an acutely irritating kind.

Punch, August, 1990

[ FIXED LINK ] Bookmark and Share

Twitter RT @oldandrewuk: Some people leave Twitter and return so often they might as well have a revolving door fitted.  (4 hours ago)


The shocking truth about Jordan Peterson by Wesley Yang -
The intellectual dark web by Bari Weiss -
How identity politics is harming the sciences by Heather Mac Donald -
The fall of the German Empire by Ross Douthat -
How Tom Wolfe became Tom Wolfe by Michael Lewis - Vanity Fair
The neuro-diversity case for free speech by Geoffrey Miller -
The Age of Outrage by Jonathan Haidt -
The Warlock Hunt by Claire Berlinski -
Is classical liberalism conservative? by Yarom Hazony -
The Implosion of Western Liberalism by Patrick Lee Miller -
The Eton of the East End - Daily Mail
The reactionary temptation by Andrew Sullivan -
The book that scandalised New York intellectuals by Louis Menand -
To understand Britain today, look to the 17th Century by Adrian Wooldridge -
The crisis in France by Christopher Caldwell -
A Visit to Michaela School by Patrick Alexander -
Why parenting may not matter by Brian Boutwell -
Trump Establishment's Cultural Significance Explained by Michael Wolff -
Branching histories of the 2016 referendum by Dominic Cummings -
Putin's Real Long Game by Molly K McKew -
The Flight 93 Election by Publius Decius Mus -
How the education gap is tearing politics apart by David Runciman -
What's wrong with identity politics by Graeme Archer -
Grammars and the grain of truth by Jonathan Porter
Anti-Brexit: Britain's new class war by John O'Sullivan -
The English Revolt by Robert Tombs -
Democracies end when they are too democratic by Andrew Sullivan -
Human beings really are making progress by Steven Pinker -
What ISIS really wants by Graeme Wood -
A society ripe for Submission by Douglas Murray -
Why I'm a Conservative Teacher by Jonathan Porter -
Corbyn's Inconvenient Truth – He wanted the IRA to win -
Why I've become Tory scum by Tony Parsons -
Inside Westminster's free school -
Robert Conquest obit -
Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite – it's so much worse than that -


Andrew Lilico
Andrew Sullivan
Arts and Letters Daily
Bagehot's Notebook
BBC News
BBC Sport
Benedict Brogan
Brendan O'Neill
Bruce Anderson
Coffee House
Conservative Home
Damian McBride
Damian Thompson
Dan Hodges
Daniel Hannon
Ed West
Frank Furedi
Guido Fawkes
Harry Phibbs
Iain Dale
Iain Martin
James Delingpole
James Wolcott
Joe Murphy
John Rentoul
Labour List
Mark Steyn
Matt Drudge
Mehdi Hasan
Melanie Phillips
Michael Wolff
Nick Cohen
Nick Robinson
Nikki Finke
Paul Waugh
Peter Hitchens
Political Betting
Right Minds
Rob Long
Rod Liddle
Sophy Ridge
Stephen Pollard
The Arts Desk
The Corner
The Daily Beast
The First Post
The Omnivore
The Onion
Tim Shipman
Tim Stanley
Tom Shone


AA Gill
Aidan Hartley
Allison Pearson
Allister Heath
AO Scott
Boris Johnson
Charles Moore
Cosmo Landesman
Daniel Finkelstein
David Brooks
Fraser Nelson
George Monbiot
Giles Coren
Henry Winter
James Delingpole
Jan Moir
Janan Ganesh
Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Warner
Jim White
Jonathan Freedland
Lloyd Evans
Manohla Dargis
Martin Samuel
Mary Ann Sieghart
Matthew d'Ancona
Matthew Norman
Maureen Dowd
Michiko Kakutani
Owen Jones
Patrick O'Flynn
Paul Krugman
Peter Bradshaw
Peter Oborne
Philip Collins
Polly Toynbee
Quentin Letts
Rachel Johnson
Rod Liddle
Roy Greenslade
Tim Montgomerie
Trevor Kavanagh
UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on

  • Buy the book on

  • UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on

  • Buy the book on

  • Audio Book Cover

  • Buy the audio book from
    Whole Story Audio
  • DVD Cover

  • Buy the DVD from

  • Buy the DVD from

  • IMdb Page on the film