23 May 2005

Innocent Ian McEwan

Re-reading “The Innocent” by Ian McEwan sent a shiver down my spine, exactly as it had done the first time I read it years ago.

“The Innocent” is a love affair between a British man, Leonard, a telephone engineer in his mid-twenties who arrives in Berlin during the 1950’s Cold War, young and innocent, and a slightly-older attractive German woman, Maria.

Predictably, the story concerns the loss of innocence, and Leonard begins to change in some frightening ways. He begins to associate himself with the conquering West and Maria with the defeated Germany, treating her with mounting brutality in their lovemaking, until one day he goes too far. Another crisis emerges when they accidentally kill Maria’s ex-husband, a wife-beater, and then dismember the body to hide it.

Frightening? Mr McEwan is unperturbed, going headlong with macabre plots such as this one in a series of novels, and winning much acclaim in the process.

According to Christian Perring, Ph D, who also reviews fiction in connection with metapsychology, Mr McEwan’s stories have often brought out the sinister side of human nature. His early collections of short stories and novels took pleasure in their own perversity, flirting with taboo subjects while maintaining an emotional distance from their characters – largely through poetic use of language.

It seems Mr McEwan is drawn to the theme of youthful sexuality, of the innocent and the not-so-innocent, as they recur in his novels from time to time. His early works have an adolescent quality to them, skilfully styled, yet refusing to engage in profound analysis of the lives he describes.

Critics have tried to trace elements of Mr McEwan’s earlier fiction to his past. Reportedly, while studying English at the University of Sussex, Mr McEwan was deeply disturbed after finding out that his father would get drunk and beat his wife, Rose.

Mr McEwan, who has won literary awards such as the Booker and the Whitbread, among others, is quoted in a review of “Atonement” (a later book) by Thomas Wagner, “I have a great sense of the randomness of life… Some people want to make me out to be a sort of gothic writer about horrors that intrude. I'm saying I'm reflecting what happens when peoples’ lives are utterly transformed or destroyed by sudden events.”

When asked by David Wiegand in a 2002 interview, “What about the secrets, the shocks in your writing? Are they planned?” Mr McEwan replies, “Ideally, I hope to surprise myself. For me writing a novel is like beginning an investigation, and you don't quite know where that investigation will take you. I might have a clear idea of where I might end up even, but along the way, I hope to be surprised.”

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