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The Cockroach

Updated: Mar 13, 2020

Ian McEwan’s fearful nod to our Kafkaesque times

Writer- Max Hunter

Illustrator- Paola Lindo

Satire has crawled out of the pages of novels and started to give addresses at the parliamentary dispatch box. Events have begun to satirise themselves. It’s no wonder that Ian McEwan feels no need to deviate his narrative too far from the real world events of Britain’s stormy politics. Readers won’t be hard pressed to place his characters in the revolving set of buffoonery that is our actual cabinet. This 100 page novella follows in the best tradition of the genre. It is merciless: it rips fun at the structures of Westminster politicking, and at the toxic class privileges that underpin it. Its chief target, however, is Brexit.

Imagine a medium sized, industrial economy governed by a mature democracy. Its leaders, its institutions, but more importantly its conversation, literally taken over by an irresistible force. A political force with an inversion of economic logic at its core; a project with absurdity written into its very heart. In its messianic quest to enforce its will, no opposition will be brooked and no rules heeded. This is because it is a force both superficially alien to, and yet in other ways integral to, the very structure of the system itself. Like a hurricane it seems to blow in out of nowhere, seizing all the actors and sending them in crazy new directions. In reality, this is a sickness that has been breeding for a long, long time: slowly gathering strength in the squalor and rot that sits like a concealed cancer beneath Westminster’s ancient, decrepit foundations.

The metaphor works pretty well. Instead of a project to sever a country’s trading ties with its closest economic, diplomatic, ideological and geographical neighbours, we have a plan to literally reverse the flow of money. Shoppers get paid for their shopping, and they pay to work. The dialogue is punchy, witty and rarely superfluous. McEwan’s writing is well suited to the novella form; he’s good at packing meaning and poise into tight spaces, without leaving the writing feeling cluttered. The momentum seems to build well until about two thirds of the way through, after which McEwan seems to get a little bit lost in himself. The ending also leaves something to be desired: for a piece of writing grounded in the absurd, sometimes less is more. I felt like the unveiling of some master plan for cockroach world-domination landed limply compared to the lively humour and piercing relevance of the previous 98 pages.

The themes that this little dagger of a book seeks to trace could not be more central to our times: nationalism, populism, the rise of egomaniacal leaders willing to bend the rules. It’s a homage to the father of the cockroach genre: Franz Kafka. Perhaps in that, we can see something beautifully relevant to our times. The alienation, the absurdity and the human anxiety that shaped Kafka’s writing were born out of the political perils of his time: namely the growth of dehumanising, autocratic nation-state bureaucracies. McEwan has shrewdly observed that the populist earthquake of the 2010s is truly more Kafkaesque than Kafka. Nationalism is back with a vengeance, and its distorting effects on human reason and decency are all too plain to see.

“Inspired by an idea as pure and thrilling as blood and soil. Impelled towards a goal that lifted beyond mere reason to embrace a mystical sense of nation, of an understanding as simple and as simply good and true as religious faith”. (p 21)

The most important test that this book faces is whether a Brexiteer might find it funny. It starts from the assumption that Brexit is in fact a sickness: a parasitic disease that has infected its host body (our body politic) and corrupted it towards some ignoble end. The assumptions that it rests upon do not cross the burning political divide, and neither I suspect would the humour. This is indeed a polemic, but its value as such may perhaps be quite limited. This book should in many ways be considered a consolation rite for Remainers: it will make them chuckle in self-satisfaction while they watch the broader political battle going against them. It will vindicate their loathing, their anxieties and fears. For all that - and as a Remainer filled with loathing and fearful for the future- I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

Image: Via Pinterest

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