Franz Kafka comes to Downing Street in Ian McEwan’s glorious satire The Cockroach. A comic parable, the novella inverts Kafka’s 1916 Metamorphosis in which Gregor Samsa ‘awoke’ to find himself ‘transformed’ into ‘a gigantic insect’ so that contemporary Jim Sams ‘woke to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature’. That creature, with brilliance and panache, turns out to be the occupant of 10 Downing Street.
This is not an existential reflection on the broader human condition, as Kafka’s landmark novella was, but a satire about the British political establishment being turned upside down. It is inescapably about Brexit although that word is not to be found within the pages of The Cockroach.
In place of Brexit, and its opposing camps of Leave and Remain, McEwan pits the Clockwise and Reversalist tendencies within the prime minister’s party. Advocates of the Clockwise philosophy support the status quo, whilst the Reversalists espouse ‘a thought experiment’, promoted by ‘eccentrics … of the sort who might trap you in a pub and bore you for an hour’. The idea is ‘beautiful and simple’: that ‘the money flow be reversed and the entire economic system, even the nation itself, will be purified, purged of absurdities, waste and injustice’. The result is that employees pay their companies for the hours they’ve toiled and are then recompensed with cash for all the goods they take away from shops — and so on, including savings attracting high negative interest rates — and endless other ramifications. It is an idea that Jim Sams tries to sell abroad but, after initial interest from the Americans, is taken up only by St Kitts and Nevis.
The parallel with Brexit is unmissable — at least for its Remainer readership. A project with great ideological appeal but no apparent benefit rends the country down the middle. McEwan is scrupulously careful to never close the gap between Reversalists and Brexiteers. There is plausible deniability throughout. Jim Sams has ‘gingery brown hair’. The adviser who wears a Superman T-shirt is sacked in the first few pages. Yet the basis for the comparison persists with Reversalists including the working class and the old. The satire is indeed bitter.
This inescapable anchorage reaches its firmest — and most entertaining — form in the way Twitter is used. The PM’s introduction to Twitter, with finger dextrousness arriving slowly to one who was so recently a cockroach, is deemed a ‘primitive version of the pheromonal unconscious’ which had hitherto been his strongest guide. Yet his first Tweet attracts 150,000 followers within a couple of hours. Both the medium and the user — if not all users — are thereby satirised. The linguistic tone of the PM’s first Tweet is purely Trumpian, about the French premiere: ‘Clockwiser Larousse is just a loser, and in my view the least effective French President in living memory’. McEwan betters this with the American president lobbing in his own Tweet which is described as being ‘poetry, smoothly combing density of meaning with fleet-footed liberation from detail’. There is hardly a better line in the book, although the joke about White’s or Hyde Park being nothing to someone ‘who owned more expensive clubs and bigger courses’ comes close.
When the German chancellor enquired of Jim why the Reversalists were doing this, tearing the nation apart and inflicting demands on best friends, pretending they are enemies, the answer that sputters out in the end is a plainly exasperated ‘because’, which seems about right. The novella ends with a withering conclusion that Reversalism is designed to benefit not the British people but cockroaches, particularly those scuttling behind the wainscoting of the Palace of Westminster.
One can read The Cockroach in a single, short sitting. Its delightful and biting message, delivered in a spare and controlled voice, will linger for much longer. There are, after all, only limited ways in which Remainers can get their pleasures.