SCAN Book Club: The Cockroach by Ian McEwan


In 1915, Franz Kafka published his magical realism classic, The Metamorphosis, in which a man is transformed into a giant cockroach, putting an understandable strain on his family. In this modern twist, Ian McEwan instead transforms a cockroach into the most important man in Britain: the Prime Minister. McEwan’s fictional cockroach cabinet unveils plans to overturn the British economy, isolating the country from the rest of the world. Familiar to anyone?

Described by the publisher as “Kafka meets The Thick of It”, McEwan’s depiction of political unrest is undoubtedly inspired by the current Brexit situation. McEwan presents a fictional economic shift that reflects Brexit, and its impact on the country: ‘Reversalism’, as the novella calls it, is the reversal of the flow of money. In this economy, money is handed out with goods, while workers “pay” for their jobs. Any hoarding of more than £25 is a criminal offence. Just like Brexit, this policy is uncharted economic territory for Britain, since they have never done it before, and it also risks isolating Britain from the rest of Europe and the world.

McEwan is relatively critical of his cockroach’s real-life counterparts. The first page says it all: “Any resemblance to other cockroaches…” suggests that either McEwan or his narrator sees the conservative government as comparable to “cockroaches”. Although perhaps in some ways, he is sympathetic; after all, he presents the cockroaches as parasites. The real Jim Sams, the human host, is described as indecisive and unsure, supposedly reflective of Theresa May, who many criticised for her hesitation and undefined stance. The previous Prime Minister is mentioned (David Cameron’s fictional equivalent) and presented as having ducked out and left Jim Sams with a problematic job after the referendum. While McEwan appears to be sympathetic for May, we can assume that the cockroach that then inhabits Sams’ body is the reflection of Boris Johnson. By this interpretation, it seems that McEwan is not so sympathetic of our current Prime Minister.

Interestingly, McEwan’s approach, although we can assume it comes from an anti-Brexit position, strays further from satire than you might expect. While the beginning of the novella makes a mockery of the current government by casting them as cockroaches, as the story goes on, it becomes gravely severe. Sams is a smart, conniving ruler, and the cockroaches’ influence gradually becomes scary rather than comedic, particularly towards the end of the story. McEwan worries readers, drawing them in with a satirical commentary of British politics and leaving them concerned for the country’s future.

The most impressive aspect of McEwan’s novella is how fabulously current it is. The publishers released the novella on September 27th, just a month before the original Brexit deadline of October 31st. McEwan must have written and edited the novella with impressive efficiently for it to be so perfectly timed for its intentions. Concluding just after McEwan’s fictional R-day – The Cockroach’s equivalent to the Brexit deadline – the novella leaves readers with a lingering sense of dread due to its informed and incredibly current interpretation of Brexit.

Like McEwan’s other work, The Cockroach is a beautifully written novella and an in-depth critique of Britain’s current political situation. The views implied by the cockroach metaphor are likely to be shared by many British readers, who may feel a similar frustration and fear surrounding Brexit. I found this an exciting and inventive retelling of Kafka’s classic tale, and a clever commentary on not just Brexit, but modern British politics as a whole.

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