As It Happens

What if a cockroach was prime minister? Ian McEwan pens Kafkaesque satire about Brexit

When Ian McEwan sat down to write his latest book, he says his goal was to come up with something "as absurd, if not more absurd, than Brexit."

McEwan says his goal in The Cockroach was to come up with an idea 'as absurd, if not more absurd, than Brexit'

British novelist Ian McEwan says writing a satire about Brexit was a cathartic experience. (Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for BF)


When Ian McEwan sat down to write his latest book, he says his goal was to come up with something "as absurd, if not more absurd, than Brexit."

So he wrote about cockroaches taking over the British government and upending the very definition of capitalism.

"I'm not sure I've succeeded," the British novelist told As It Happens host Carol Off, "but it is pretty absurd."

The Cockroach — a Brexit-inspired novella influenced by the absurdism of Franz Kafka and the satire of Jonathan Swift — hit shelves on Sept. 27. 

'Reversalists' and 'counter-clockwisers'

The basic premise of The Cockroach is a reversal of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, in which a man wakes up one morning to find he has transformed into a cockroach.

In McEwan's novella, it's a cockroach who wakes up to find that he is a man. And he's not just any man — he's Jim Sams, the prime minister of the United Kingdom.

"He wakes up in a small bedroom at the top of 10 Downing Street. He doesn't know straightaway that he's the prime minister. It's only when an aide comes in and tells him," McEwan said.

"But he's rather pleased because he actually lives behind the skirting boards in the House of Commons and he's listened to many parliamentary procedures and he rather fancies himself at the dispatch box."

Ian McEwan's novella The Cockroach is about Brexit. (Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images, Random House)

Faced with a frustrated populace and a dwindling economy, Sams comes up with a radical idea.

It's called "reversalism," and McEwan describes it as "the government's idea of making the money flow in a different direction — so when it's your pay day, actually you're the one handing over money to your employers."

Under reversalism, when you buy something, you get paid for it. But you're not allowed to hoard money, so you have to hold down a job to get rid of your cash. 

"And it's all very well, but it gets a bit difficult when it comes to trading with other nations," he said.

The debate over reversalism descends into a circus of politicking and propaganda, pitting the "reversalists" against the "clockwisers."

"They're the ones who just want things to go on as they were and they think that there's nothing wrong with the way that money flows and we're doing perfectly well with that system. So they want the clock to go clockwise," he said.

"But much like the remainers in the Brexit ... debate, they keep referring to facts. And Brexit is really not about facts. It's about emotions. And so they lose out in the end."

President cockroach 

Along the way, Sams realizes he's not the only cockroach wielding power in this brave new world.

For one, U.S. President Archie Tupper — who is prone to angry tweets and serves as inspiration to Sams — appears to have some insect-like qualities.

What's more, Sams quickly learns that almost his entire cabinet is made up of cockroaches.

"So the cockroaches come and take over ... and put a bit of stiffness in their back to push the project through," McEwan said. "And, actually, they succeed."

The cockroach prime minister in McEwan's book sometimes behaves suspiciously like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Jessica Taylor/The Associated Press)

But reversalism, it turns out, is not at all what was promised, and the economy inevitably stagnates under the new system.

That's when the roaches shed their human costumes and scurry to 10 Downing for a "stirring speech" by their fearless leader Sams. 

"He says generally cockroaches have flourished whenever there's poverty, whenever there's massive economic downturn, wherever there's squalor and filth and war and famine," he said. 

"And he says, I think we're on the path to really flourishing again as the country gets poorer. And, you know, if the good-hearted decent people of Britain who have been approving of reversalism find that they are less happy, they can console themselves that the cockroaches are happier and the net amount of happiness in the universe will stay constant."

'It's just so pointless'

Writing The Cockroach was a cathartic experience for McEwan, an ardent remainer who has become "immensely frustrated" with the state of politics in his country. 

"I cannot see the point of what we're about to do, whether it's to do with immigration, which isn't going to change, sovereignty, which we're not going to get more of, or the economy. I mean, every indicator suggests we're going to be a little bit poorer. It's just so pointless," he said. 

"But many people are very committed to it and it's going to happen."

He's under no impression that his work will make a lick of difference in the Brexit debate, he said.

"I don't think this is going to change anyone's mind about anything, but I just had to make my mark in mockery and some grotesquery," he said. 

"Maybe it'll make people feel just a little bit better. Some savage laughter in the dark. Actually, that might help them a little bit."

He just hopes no one takes the notion of "reversalism" too seriously.

"It might catch on," he said. "Then I'll be really desolate."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. 



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