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.