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Ian McEwan Brings Brexit To Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’

Jerusalem and Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan sees the current state of British politics as a touch Kafkaesque.

Along those lines, he announced September 12 the release of a new novella, “The Cockroach,” which turns Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” formula on its antenna, having the titular pest transform into a human. Not just any human, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Jim Sams.

In the early offing — the first chunk of the book has been released online, both as text and in an audio form read by Bill Nighy, with a full release scheduled for September 27 — McEwan’s latest appears to be a work of pastiche.

The author retools Kafka’s opening line to read: “That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature.”

From there, a rather disgusting lesson in comparative anatomy follows as the cockroach discovers a “slab of slippery meat,” in his mouth (i.e. a human tongue) and laments the loss of his “little brown legs.” This all tracks with Kafka’s opening paragraphs and Sams’s remembrance of his previous form’s scuttling about the London streets, while different in scope, feels of a piece with Gregor Samsa’s journey around the room of his confinement.

Sams’s exploration of his new body is disrupted, as Samsa’s is, by a woman at his door (for Sams, an aide; for Samsa, his mother), and each tries, with their new voice, to respond to her. But as McEwan’s faintly Kafka-ish prose continues, it quickly breaks with the older author’s concerns of alienation and filial imprisonment, opting instead for a thorough fileting of familiar, but absurdly altered geopolitics.

When Sams is brought into a meeting with advisors, readers register that Parliament is pushing for a vote of “No Confidence” in the Prime Minister over the result of a referendum. This referendum is a bit touchy, we glean, with a politician having been beheaded in a supermarket by a fanatic “Reversalist,” while a high-profile Reversalist received a milkshake to his newly-cleaned suit courtesy of a “Clockwiser.” Both incidents ring a bell, but the partisans are a bit different than “Leave” and “Remain.”

In the available excerpt, the nature of what these two camps want is not immediately clear, but in an early review from the Telegraph, Anita Singh explains that “Reversalism is an absurd economic theory in which employees pay their employers at the end of the working week, then go to the shops where they are paid to take stuff away rather than buy it.”

This development has the ancillary effect of “negative interest rates for money in the bank, and police pull[ing] over speeding drivers to hand them £50 notes through the window.”

It sounds like one too many concepts, but I suppose if you already know your Kafka, you can take the whole switching-bodies thing for granted and meditate on what this bizarre reshuffled economy has to say about the author’s opinion of Brexit.

McEwan has made no secret of his thoughts there, having called himself a Brexit “denialist” and referring to the vote to leave as a “national tragedy.” How he feels about the politicians still trying to make the United Kingdom’s graceful exit from Europe proper work is on full display here.

Now in a human body, Sams finds, “His understanding, like his vision, was narrowed. He lacked the broad and instant union with the entirety of his kind, the boundless resource of the oceanic pheromonal.”

But, something as animal as pheromones, it would seem, are what drive Sams’s political maneuvers as he goes about “bluffing his way through briefings and PMQs [Prime Minister’s Questions], ruthlessly culling plotters in his own party,” and, as Singh continues, “delivering rousing speeches about ‘re-energising our great country and not only making it great again, but making it the greatest place on Earth[.]”

Across the Pond, we may not appreciate the full depth of Swiftian, or even Iannuccian satire, McEwan is aspiring to. Truth be told, the author he is emulating was never this overtly political, (Cynthia Ozick once wrote “Kafka has no politics”). But, American readers can probably enjoy at least one parallel.

As Singh reports, the novella includes a U.S. president named “Archie Tupper” who has Twitter tantrums and supports the cockroach-cum-PM’s plan to install a billionaire casino magnate as the head of the country’s National Health Services. Tupper backs this appointment in exchange for a golf course at Hyde Park or Victoria Cross.

McEwan’s book could hardly have picked a better time to drop. On September 24, the UK Supreme Court ruledthat the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s, move to prorogue (suspend) Parliament was unlawful.

In McEwan’s fable, an adviser suggests that Sams reverse course on the controversial referendum and prorogue Parliament for a few months. Sams responds by asking for his resignation.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]


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