Ian McEwan is the author of two story collections, a number of television plays and screenplays, a libretto, and four novels: The Cement Garden; The Comfort of Strangers; The Child in Time; and, most recently, The Innocent (Doubleday, May 1990), a brilliant, vividly macabre book built around two central images: a tunnel being dug under Cold War Berlin, its function to permit the British and Americans to eavesdrop on their Russian “allies”; and a pair of extremely heavy suitcases. These are schlepped round the city for what seems an interminable length of time by a mild-mannered Englishman called Leonard; his discomfiture largely results from the fact that the suitcases contain the dismembered corpse of an oaf called Otto. I talked to Ian McEwan about his new book in the lobby of the Berkshire Place. A harpist plucked softly in the background.
Patrick McGrath Cold War Berlin is a plausible and familiar setting for an espionage novel, but at the same time it’s a zoned, sectored, occupied city, littered with ruins and haunted by memories of violence. Was this the attraction of Berlin as a setting?
Ian McEwan Not really. The attraction originally was to Berlin in the present. I was there in 1987, when I had already decided to write a novel set in the Cold War, but at that time I hadn’t any clear idea of the exact period. What attracted me then was the reification of the Cold War in terms of the Wall, and the absurdity of it, the banality of it, the fact that everybody steered their lives around it quite efficiently, and yet there were the dogs, the raked sand, the guns—the most incredible investment of technology, deadly technology, to prevent people from simply crossing from one street to the other. It wasn’t until much later that I chose the period, the mid-’50s, and that came after I saw a reference in Peter Wright’s Spycatcher to the tunnel. The idea was then lodged in my mind that I could write a novel set in the Cold War which would conclude with the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and that this would be mirrored in some personal reconciliation.
PM You’ve said elsewhere that the Venice of The Comfort of Strangers was a state of mind as much as a physical locale. I wonder if the Berlin of The Innocent became for you a state of mind also, an analogue of postwar consciousness?
IM Berlin was like a fridge in a way, a deep freeze, in that the postures of the combatants in World War II were frozen in place in Berlin. So it was like history held in limbo. The period in which the novel is set was a time when the British Empire was dissolving: the war had made us virtually penniless, and the Empire was coming apart for internal reasons too, and the mantle was passing to the Americans, who had strengthened their economy enormously through the war. So I was interested in writing a novel that was about this moment of crossover, just a year before the Suez Crisis, a moment when an Englishman could no longer afford that sort of cool and easy superiority towards Americans expressed by, say, the hero of The Loved One.Suddenly, the Americans seemed to have the style, they seemed to have the confidence, to be taking larger strides around the place.
PM One facet of the Americans in the novel is their ability to suppress the past, in the form of Leonard’s suitcases.
IM Well, forgetfulness, I think, is an important ingredient in sustaining the myth of innocence, and I think innocence is a very double-edged matter. Terrible things have been committed in its name. I often invoke the memory of President Carter giving a speech after the Iranians had taken the American hostages, in which he said that “now America has lost its innocence.” It intrigued me to hear that myth again summoned up, of this country that’s been involved in two world wars, and the Vietnam War, and the Korean War, and has its fingers in millions of pies around the globe—how it can call up this genie of innocence; and I think it requires a quite determined rewriting of history, or erasure of history, to do so. In many ways, I think this is also true of the British, although I don’t think that myths of innocence are quite so powerful in Britain. Probably an older civilization can’t sustain such an idea. But yes, I think innocence is a very loaded and poisoned word when one’s talking about nations. I think it was de Gaulle who said that “nations and governments have no morals, therefore no innocence.” They act out of self-interest.
PM You mention a reconciliation at the end of the novel, yet your character, Leonard, never actually gets to America for a reunion with Maria, the woman he loved in Berlin back in 1955.
IM Well, I’ve left it open to the reader to decide if Leonard is not actually about to die. At the end of the novel he’s 67, has a heart condition, and is left with his eyes closed slumped on a bench in the shade of a tree. I’m not sure anyway that Leonard in any sense deserves Maria. He’s a man who goes on protesting his innocence without ever really examining his guilt: having been involved in at least a manslaughter, and having betrayed his country, and by an act of extraordinary paranoia rejected the woman he loves, because he suspects her of having an affair, he still manages to leave Berlin with an idea of his innocence intact. He’s a worrying instance of a man who makes no use of history. There is a degree of reconciliation, but it’s a reconciliation very much against the background of wasted time. I went over to Berlin as soon as the Wall started to come down, in November of last year; I’d finished the novel in June, and to my amazement I found myself at Potsdammerplatz, which is where Leonard imagines his reunion with Maria. I found myself at Potsdammerplatz at six o’clock on a Sunday morning, the 12th of November, watching a crane lift up a huge chunk of the Wall, and then I was going through the breach in the Wall with my wife and ten thousand other people. Perhaps because of that moment I rather cling to, or exaggerate, the sense of reconciliation that lies at the end of the novel. Certainly as I went through and crossed into No-Man’s-Land, crossed the raked sand that had been cleared of mines, I had a very ambivalent sense of the moment: it was joyful, it was extraordinary; it was cause for celebration, but also, if the Wall had come down so easily and we could come through like this, then what on earth was it doing there for so long? And a sense of waste was very, very strong. I hope the novel catches that sense, which is why I couldn’t grant Leonard a simple reunion with Maria. I wanted the novel to have this double-edged feeling, this bittersweet feeling, that at last he’d seen his way through, that he’d been wrong to mistrust her, that there was a certain kind of truth and a lesson learned. But also his life had gone by, he was 67. That, for me, was the Wall coming down too, it was not a simple matter of unalloyed joy, it was a moment in which you get the sense that a whole generation, or two generations, had lost time, had lost opportunity.
PM Would you talk about the relationship Leonard has with Otto, Maria’s ex-husband, who is killed in her apartment and whose corpse then gives Leonard such trouble?
IM I had the idea of Leonard as an ordinary kind of a guy carrying within himself the very destructiveness that was there in Otto. In many ways Otto is a kind of doppelganger; he’s that demon writ large that is also in Leonard, and, I would argue, in all of us. When Otto’s discovered asleep in the wardrobe, there’s a moment when Leonard leaves off arguing with Maria and goes to contemplate this man, and he thinks to himself: “She chose him, and then she chose me. Our fates are somehow bound together. She’s bound me to this man.” Then when the fatal fight starts in the apartment, Leonard finds himself in the middle of a marital row, and it’s described purely in terms of warfare, a gun battle. This is carried on later when Leonard is facing the terrible act of dismembering Otto and sees Otto from the point of view of a bomber aiming at a target. In all these indications of violence, in the fight, in the dismemberment scene, what I’m trying to suggest is that we stand at the end of the European century, and in its social memory are extraordinary feats of violence in the slaughter of two world wars and the associated genocides.
PM One is very powerfully engaged by the dismemberment scene.
IM If you’re trying to invoke a sense of ordinary people caught up in terrible acts of violence, you have to do it in a way that actually generates moral dread. Stylized or mannered violence, like the kind you see on television, where people jackknife conveniently over their gunfights, would simply be a kind of pornography.
PM Then there’s the long drawn-out sequence in which Leonard attempts to dispose of the suitcases containing the dismembered parts of Otto’s corpse.
IM Leonard with the suitcases is a man burdened not just literally but metaphorically with a memory. Europeans carry these suitcases; there’s hardly a life, still, in Europe that isn’t massively transformed by the war, or the displacements surrounding the war. These are the suitcases that arrive finally in the other bit of the plot, the Cold War bit of the plot, back in the tunnel. That’s meant to close a circle, to suggest that the freezing of postures absorbs back into itself the violence which was held in. Those suitcases are taken back into the tunnel like something being absorbed back into itself, so that what preceded the Cold War, the hot war, in which 50, 60, 70 million people died, not only in combat or in the Final Solution, but also in genocides all up and down the century—somehow it was important to take this back into the Cold War, to see that the Cold War was like violence frozen in the act. Now that the Cold War is over, you will really see, I think, that that European demon, that “Otto,” will stalk the place once more. I don’t think it’s a matter of simple jubilation. Anti-Semitism, for example, has emerged quite spectacularly in France, but there have been other attacks, swastikas being daubed on walls in north London, graves being desecrated in the Soviet Union. There are old ethnic hatreds and rivalries emerging in Central Europe. We do have this fantastic destructive capacity, which stands in stark contrast to the great triumphs of European civilization. So I think the novel is trying to say, well, here’s a love affair, the very best of what we can achieve, and here’s this terrible act of violence, which is the very worst. Europeans live this intense double life. They created, for example, the political culture of individuality, and yet they practice genocide on a scale that is unequaled in any other time or place. It’s that two-faced nature of European civilization I was trying to hint at in a person, and maybe we can only understand these things if we bring them to a personal level.
PM Unless that happens, do you suspect that Europe is doomed to repeat its mistakes?
IM Well, I’m staggered when I see pictures in newspapers of swastikas on pavements. I think, where’s history? Where is a sense of history? I think I then get a sense of other human beings as automatons—it strikes such a chill in my heart, that we might have to run through all that again. And knowing too that it was always there, that the Cold War simply imposed a rigid false order that suppressed all these possibilities—not only the possibilities of free expression, but also the possibilities of free hatred. No, I think the European 21st century is going to be very difficult. I don’t see it simply as democracy extending everywhere, all peace and prosperity, because there is this human problem of ancient hatreds. The Cold War prevented us from confronting this. We never had the chance to face up to what World War II unleashed, and the loss wasn’t only in the East, it was in the West too.
PM In what sense? Because the West was contaminated by paranoia?
IM Well, I think that thought was the contaminant in a way. The Cold War made sophisticated positions difficult. If you were in the peace movement in the West, for example, you were clearly aiding the Kremlin. If you were a dissident working for the extension of political rights in the Soviet Union, then you were clearly acting in the interest of the CIA. It was this sort of simple vision and thought that robbed intellectual life of its richness. It put a lot of people in a false opposition. It’s very hard to think clearly when the world gets divided up.
PM The concept of innocence seems finally to acquire its complexity in the novel because two sets of opposition are invoked: one is innocence as against experience, the other, innocence as against guilt. Leonard moves through questions of sexual innocence, political innocence, moral innocence, legal innocence—all spliced together so that a tremendous richness and density accumulates around the idea.
IM It’s curious, because I wrote the novel with no clear sense of the title, and I often wonder if I hadn’t called it The Innocent whether we would be talking about it in this way. Titles become very powerful, controlling metaphors, and unless you have a title in the beginning which is helping you write the book it’s very difficult, retrospectively, to name a book, because it involves deciding what it’s about. Even with The Innocent I never felt completely at ease.
PM Is that still true?