Ian McEwan’s new novella, 'The Cockroach' has at its core a sense of utter frustration and disbelief at the shenanigans and incompetence of his country’s leaders.
It’s a delicious story, and one that’s been told many times over. When Henry Kissinger asked Zhou Enlai in 1971 what he thought of the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese premier replied, “It’s too early to say”.
As with so many stories that appear too good to be true, this wasn’t quite accurate. It later turned out that Zhou Enlai thought Kissinger’s question referred to the student protests that rocked Paris in 1968. Taking the approach of not letting facts get in the way of a good story, the broader question still stands: how soon is too soon to pass judgement on historical events?
It’s a question that many satirical authors must have asked themselves. If you’re going to be taking time and care over a work that you hope will endure, is your take on current affairs going to stand the test of time? Then again, feelings of justifiable anger and a desire to hold the powerful to account can override such concerns.
Other forms of satire thrive on lampooning the moment, which is why mocking tweets, internet memes, late-night show hosts and online zines are having a field day. These are our current sources of parody and invective, and certainly not novels. A pitfall of this, especially online, as Justin EH Smith, philosophy professor at the University of Paris, has pointed out, is that “it has become impossible to separate it cleanly from the toxic disinformation that defines our era.”
A derisive take on Brexit
Ian McEwan’s new novella, The Cockroach, which is a derisive take on Brexit, fits uneasily into this environment. For a start it’s not laughter from the abyss in the manner of satirical writing from Eastern Europe. It’s not a fully realised world, as with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or George Orwell’s Animal Farm or even Robert Menasse’s The Capital, a farcical take on European Union bureaucracy. The Cockroach can, instead, be described as a short burst of exasperated ridicule.
In a neat inversion of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, it opens with a cockroach turning into a human being. Not just any human being: this is Jim Sams, the Prime Minister of Britain, who is “clever but by no means profound”. McEwan writes interestingly and well about the strangeness of alteration, as Sams gets used to his new form. “The bristling oval disk of a face balanced on a thick pink stalk of neck repelled him. But it was the pinprick eyes that shocked him most.”
He finds himself leading a country in crisis, with two warring camps. On one side are the Reversalists, and on the other, the Clockwisers. What the Reversalists want is to reverse the flow of money, and it looks like McEwan has had a lot of fun cooking up this carnival mirror of Brexit. Reversalists envisage a scenario in which employees pay employers; shops pay people for what they buy; exporters give the country money, and Britain in turn pays other countries to import its products and services. The Clockwisers, on the losing side, find all of this bonkers, and those in Brussels look on in bemusement: “It was laughable. Surely the Greeks had a word for it, choosing to act in one’s own very worst interests? Yes, they did. It was akrasia. Perfect.”
Matters reach a head and even the US President, in his great and unmatched wisdom, starts tweeting about the benefits of Reversalism. At one point, the German Chancellor asks Sams why he is hellbent on following this destructive course. The Prime Minister, momentarily taken aback, thinks of a list of “becauses” and finally bursts out: “We intend to become clean, green, prosperous, united, confident and ambitious!” More populist rants follow, as Sams, having early on realised that the members of his cabinet are also converted cockroaches like him, rams through plans to make Britain great again.
McEwan’s book has at its core a sense of utter frustration and disbelief at the shenanigans and incompetence of his country’s leaders. These feelings overwhelm novelistic niceties. The Kafkaesque start, for example, metamorphoses into a decidedly non-Kafkaesque narrative. Much of the book is an exposition of the idiocies of Reversalism and mock-heroic speeches. Climate change and the Me Too movement are thrown into the mix, and events such as the proroguing of Parliament and milkshake protests also feature. The result is readable, but also decidedly uneven.
One of the weaknesses of satire is that it preaches to the converted. McEwan’s The Cockroach will certainly delight those opposing Brexit; as for those on the other side, they’ll probably come up with another meme or billboard for devoted adherents.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
Read his columns here.
First Published: IST