05 Apr 2020


In The Cockroach, Clockwisers represent Remainers while Reversalists represent Brexiteers
In The Cockroach, Clockwisers represent Remainers while Reversalists represent Brexiteers

"That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature.” Ian McEwan opens The Cockroach, his feeble satire on British politics, by giving a nod to Franz Kafka’s iconic opening lines of The Metamorphosis.

A cockroach wakes up at No.10 Downing Street, hung-over and disembodied, only to find out that, overnight, he has turned into a daft, opportunistic prime minister — who eerily resembles the United Kingdom’s current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. McEwan is nothing if not methodical and the novella’s initial pages minutely go over all the varied physical and psychological reorientations that take place when the cockroach transforms into Prime Minister Jim Sams.

This transition from bug to human is complete when he is no longer just a cockroach in human form, guided by “collective pheromonal unconscious”, but gains an instinctive sense of the basic concepts a person should be aware of: “How familiar he was with the opposition leader’s shouted questions, the brilliant non sequitur replies, the festive jeers and clever imitations of sheep.”

Hailed as Britain’s national writer at one point, McEwan’s earlier novels were dark enough to earn him the title of “Ian Macabre”, but his work since the last decade has veered more towards the political, with copious social commentary. The pronounced political connotations of the plot of this novella and its relevance to the present day right-leaning politics of the UK makes this well-timed squib relatively low-hanging fruit for a writer of McEwan’s stature. Done right, this could have been an instant classic, but instead, it turns out to be a tone-deaf, plodding affair. The current political climate is farcical and self-parodies itself, which is what McEwan attempts to convey in this hastily put together, slapdash satire which might have been pardonable for a new writer still finding their feet, but unforgivable for a veteran such as McEwan.

As prime minister, Sams’s immediate task at hand is the implementation of his primary plan of Reversalism — an economic policy in which the flow of money is reversed. Under this economic system, employees pay money to their employers for being allowed to work and “earn” back this money by going shopping at retail outlets. People are forbidden to hoard cash since any cash deposited in the bank accrues high negative interest rates. The rationale behind this is that the economy will be stimulated and full employment will be achieved.

Ian McEwan puts his own spin to Brexit and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in this disjointed novella

If the idea seems too far-fetched, McEwan is quick to ground it in reality by giving historical evidence for its existence. Apparently, two economists suggested the idea of reverse flow of money in the 17th century. In the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944 — which was responsible for the post-war economic order — a Paraguayan representative made a passionate plea in favour of Reversalism.

“Clockwisers” are those who prefer money to go round in the old and tested way. If one is to draw parallels between fiction and reality, Reversalists are the same as Brexiteers and Clockwisers are Remainers. Sams wants to bring Reversalism to Britain after the Reversalist Party’s “populist, anti-elitist” manifesto wins the approval of the American president Archie Tupper, the fictional equivalent of Donald Trump. Reversalism might be one of the few strokes of genius in this otherwise banal plot and McEwan seems to have a riot explaining this controversial economic policy and its historical context to an extent that, in a convoluted sense, the policy starts seeming credible, if flawed.

As a writer, McEwan has always toyed with ingenious scientific or social notions in his fictional works. A case in point would be his last novel Machines Like Me, which was an inventive but ultimately jumbled story set in an alternate 1980s England, where Margaret Thatcher is prime minister, the British are about to lose the Falklands War, John F. Kennedy survives his assassination attempt and Alan Turing is not only alive, but his algorithms have advanced technology and artificial intelligence to the extent that androids are now a reality.

There are always those who hesitate by an open cage door ... If only they knew, the momentous event had already slipped from their control, it had moved beyond analysis and debate and into history. It was already unfolding, here at this table. The collective fate was being forged in the heat of the Cabinet’s quiet passion. Hard Reversalism was mainstream. Too late to go back! — Excerpt from the book

What Machines Like Me and The Cockroach have in common is that, despite an array of ingenious concepts being tossed around in the narrative, there is a distinct sense of incoherence and none of the ideas coalesce into a streamlined, intellectually stimulating storyline. Ultimately, the plot in both the books offers nothing new except the themes it attempts to subvert or satirise. The brevity of this slim novella makes it clear that the writer’s intention is not to give elaborate insight into the rise of populism in politics, but merely to lampoon such demagogic politicians.

In an event that seems entirely plausible in the current political scenario, a French ship accidentally collides with a British fishing boat, resulting in the casualties of all six crew members on board. The Prime Minister sees this as a perfect ruse to distract the public from the contentious policies of his party: “In an instant, out of tragedy a diplomatic crisis was born.” The Prime Minister exploits this accident for his self-serving gains under the garb of nationalist pride. Here, McEwan displays scathing irony in his spot-on depiction of leaders shamelessly preying on calamities to advance their jingoistic agendas.

But The Cockroach is one of those unfortunate cases where the plot never becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The conception of this book seems to be based on McEwan’s contempt towards Brexit hardliners, followed by the idea that political leaders are cockroaches, but the execution leaves much to be desired. The biting Brexit spoof and Kafkaesque pastiche do not mesh together too well and continue to appear jarring. In terms of enjoyment, this book is more a case of cathartic instant gratification than food for thought for those seething at the state of global political affairs.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications

The Cockroach
By Ian McEwan
Vintage, UK
ISBN: 978-1529112924

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 5th, 2020