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Ian McEwan: The Cockroach

There are two major problems in writing satire. Firstly, as Tom Lehrer wisely put it Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize. In other words writing funny, original satire is very difficult. Satire has not been McEwan’s stock-in-trade.

The second problem is that satire is all too often of its time. This novel is Franz Kafka meets Brexit. The problem for McEwan is that he is mocking current events but makes numerous references that, unless you have been closely following the whole sorry story, you may well not get. This has been a problem for satirists from Jonathan Swift to Saturday Night Live. Moreover events change dramatically, as they have done with Brexit since McEwan wrote the book.

McEwan does start off with an original approach. He takes Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) as his basis but reverses it. We start off with a cockroach making its way from Buckingham Palace to Whitehall. If you are familiar with the geography of London, you will be aware that it would normally take an adult human about ten-fifteen minutes. However, not only does it take a cockroach much longer, it is also very dangerous, as lots of people use this route and could easily, deliberately or accidentally, tread on the cockroach. Indeed, this is very much the cockroach’s concern. It is not clear why he has been at the Palace but we do learn that he has spent much time in Parliament, listening to the debates.

The cockroach eventually finds a place to sleep but when he wakes up he is a human being, something which does not really appeal – a mere four limbs, for example. We discover that he is called Jim Sams (the protagonist of Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) is called Samsa, just in case we did not get the cockroach-human metamorphosis). Not only is he human but, as he soon discovers, he is also prime minister of the United Kingdom and in a bedroom in 10 Downing Street. This book must have been written when Theresa May was still prime minister, though it was well-known that she was likely to be succeeded by Boris Johnson. However, McEwan could not have been sure about that, unless he was still writing it weeks or even days before publication.

Pre-cockroach Sams shares one feature with May – he is described as lukewarm Clockwise. McEwan cleverly does not use Brexit vs Remain but invents a new category – Reversalism (equivalent to Brexit) with its opposite Clockwise (equivalent to Remain). The following gives a description of it.

Let the money flow be reversed and the entire economic system, even the nation itself, will be purified, purged of absurdities, waste and injustice. At the end of a working week, an employee hands over money to the company for all the hours that she has toiled. But when she goes to the shops, she is generously compensated at retail rates for every item she carries away. She is forbidden by law to hoard cash. The money she deposits in her bank at the end of a hard day in the shopping mall attracts high negative interest rates. Before her savings are whittled away to nothing, she is therefore wise to go out and find, or train for, a more expensive job. The better, and therefore more costly, the job she finds for herself, the harder she must shop to pay for it. The economy is stimulated, there are more skilled workers, everyone gains.

The idea is, of course, completely mad as many people state but it enables McEwan to mock the whole idea of Brexit without mentioning the word or concept. As with Brexit, it ceases to be a rational idea, rationally discussed and rationally defended with rational arguments but becomes a matter of faith, with people believing in it without having much idea what it involves and what it costs.

Sams is the successor of David Cameron, described only as The Prime Minister who had called the referendum resigned immediately and was never heard of again. As with May, he is not well liked. Bin Dim Jim! reads one newspaper headline. But then he is cockroached and he changes, to the delight of the extreme Reversalists and the even greater delight of the right-wing press. In short, he becomes Boris Johnson – irrational, dishonest, ruthless, inconsistent, vengeful, petty. To compare him to a cockroach seems to me to be doing a grave injustice to cockroaches.

As with the Brexiters and, indeed, sometimes with Remainers, rabble-rousing slogans are used, such as The country was about to be set free from a loathsome servitude. Sams goes for the jugular and shows himself to be a strong leader

The people like it, as opinion polls show both in the book (two thirds of those in the twenty-five to thirty-four age group longed for a strong leaders who ‘did not have to bother with Parliament’ ) and for real.

We follow how Sams manages the opposition he receives, generally by being ruthless. One character, the Foreign Secretary, is called Dominic. He is clearly based on former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. This Dominic is neutralised in quite a brutal way. However, the current, real foreign secretary is called Dominic Raab but Raab is the complete antithesis of both Philip Hammond and McEwan’s foreign secretary. Indeed, it seems likely that McEwan was not aware that Raab would become foreign secretary under Johnson or he is really pushing the satire.

It is not all Brexit. Sams nearly starts a war with France. We get climate change and sexual harassment claims. Sams kowtows to Trump. In one of the funnier moments of the book, Sams suspects Trump may also be cockroached and asks him, in a phone call, if he had ever had six legs. Another insult to cockroaches.

The book is certainly funny and both the cockroach idea and the Reversalist vs Clockwise are clever. I enjoyed a few of the jokes and the mockery of the Brexiters. However, unless you have followed the whole mess in great detail, some of the references will clearly pass you by. Perhaps McEwan should have waited till the whole wretched business is finished, if it ever is.

Publishing history

First published 2019 by Jonathan Cape