Author: Ian McEwan.
Genre: Fiction, politics, satire, humour.
Publication Date: 2019.
Summary: Jim Sams has undergone a metamorphosis. In his previous six-legged existence he was ignored or loathed, but in his new incarnation he has woken up to discover that he is the most powerful man in Britain: the Prime Minister. His mission: a nationalist revival, with or without Europe. Nothing must get in his way: not the opposition, nor the dissenters within his own party. Not even the rules of parliamentary democracy.
My rating: 5.5/10.
♥ That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to ind himself transformed into a gigantic creature. For a good while he remained on his back (not his favourite posture) and regarded his distant feet, his paucity of limbs, with consternation. A mere four, of course, and quite unmoveable. His own little brown legs, for which he was already feeling some nostalgia, would have been waving merrily in the air, however hopelessly. He lay still, determined not to panic. An organ, a slab of slippery meat, lay squat and wet in his mouth – revolting, especially when it moved of its own accord to explore the vast cavern of his mouth and, he noted with muted alarm, slide across an immensity of teeth. He stared along the length of his body. His colouring, from shoulder to ankles, was a pale blue, with darker blue piping around his neck and wrists, and white buttons in a vertical line right down his unsegmented thorax. The light breeze that blew intermittently across it, bearing a not unattractive odour of decomposing good and grain alcohol, he accepted as his breath. His vision was unhelpfully narrowed – of for a compound eye – and everything he saw was oppressively colourful. He was beginning to understand that by a grotesque reversal, his vulnerable flesh now lay outside his skeleton, which was therefore wholly invisible to him. What a comfort it would have been to catch a glimpse of that homely nacreous brown.
♥ His constricted gaze travelled across the carpet to settle on the skirting board and the narrow gap along its lower edge. I might have squeezed under there out of the morning light, he thought sadly. I could have been happy.
♥ After a moment's reflection, it was clear what he must do. He set about scaling the vertical granite wall of the kerb in order to circumvent the heap and descend on its far side.
Reclining now in the attic bedroom, he decided that this was the point at which he had parted company with his own free will, or the illusion of it, and had come under the influence of a greater, guiding force. Mounting the pavement, as he did, he submitted to the collective spirit. He was a tiny element in a scheme of a magnitude that no single individual could comprehend.
♥ Seized by mortal fear and indignation, an inconvenient mix, he darted off the pavement and, to save his life, squeezed under the gate into the sanctuary and relative tranquillity of a side street where he instantly recognised the heel of a standard issue policeman's boot. Reassuring, as ever.
♥ Prime Minister's Questions. How many of those he had crouched through, listening enthralled from behind the rotten wainscoting in the company of a few thousand select acquaintances? How familiar he was with the opposition leader's shouted questions, the brilliant non sequitur replies, the festive jeers and clever imitations of sheep. It would be a dream come true, to be primo uomo in the weekly operetta. But was he adequately prepared? No less than anyone else, surely. Not after a quick glance at the papers. Like many of his kind, he rather fancied himself at the dispatch box. He would be fast on his feet, even though he only had two.
In the space where once he sported a fine mandible, the unwholesome slab of dense tissue stirred and his first human world rolled out.
♥ Improbable as it had seemed, it was possible to feel stable on only two feet. It hardly bothered him to be so far off the ground. And he was gland now not to have eaten a bluebottle in another man's presence. It might not have gone down well.
♥ The origins of Reversalism are obscure and much in dispute, among those who care. For most of its history, it was considered a thought experiment, an after-dinner game, a joke. It was the preserve of eccentrics, of lonely men who wrote compulsively to the newspapers in green ink. Of the sort who might trap you in a pub and bore you for an hour. But the idea, once embraced, presented itself to some as beautiful and simple. Let the money flow be reversed and the entire economic system, even the nation itself, will be purified, purged of absurdities, waste and injustice. At the end of a working week, an employee hands over money to the company for all the hours that she has toiled. But when she goes to the shops, she is generously compensated at retail rates for every item she carries away. She is forbidden by law to hoard cash. The money she deposits in her bank at the end of a hard day in the shopping mall attracts high negative interest rates. Before her savings are whittled away to nothing, she is therefore wise to go out and find, or train for, a more expensive job. The better, and therefore more costly, the job she finds for herself, the harder she must shop to pay for it. The economy is stimulated, there are more skilled workers, everyone gains. The landlord must tirelessly purchase manufactured goods to pay for his tenants. The government acquires nuclear power stations and expands its space programme in order to send out tax gifts to workers. Hotel managers bring in the best champagne, the softest sheets, rare orchids and the best trumpet player in the best orchestra in town, so that the hotel can afford its guests. The next day, after a successful gig at the dance floor, the trumpeter will have to shop intensely in order to pay for his next appearance. Full employment as a result.
♥ "Jim, this could be ruinous."
Every minister was watching closely this direct challenge. The prime minister's sudden delighted laughter was genuine, for he had seen ahead, not only to the foreign secretary's inexplicable death, but to his funeral, a medium-grand affair at which Jim himself would deliver the peroration. St Paul's. Elgar's "Nimrod". The Horse Guards. Which reminded him, he had not yet had breakfast.
♥ As he turned to watch him go, Jim was amazed at how it was possible to feel such joy and such hatred at the same time. A human heart, of which he was now in full possession, was a wondrous thing.
♥ A lot of negativity about Reversalism has been wildly overdone. This is no time for faint Clockwise thinking. Let no one doubt it, the money flow is about to change direction – and about time, too. On day one, on R-Day, the beneficial effects will be felt on both macro and micro levels. On R-Day, for example, our newly empowered police might pull over a recklessly speeding motorist and hand through the window two fifty-pound notes. It will be that driver's responsibility, in the face of possible criminal charges, to use that money to work and pay for more overtime, or find a slightly better job. This is just one example, Mr Speaker, of how Reversalism will stimulate the economy, incentivise our brilliant citizens, and render our democracy more robust.
♥ At the end of that first, crowded day, the prime minister had retreated to his small apartment at the top of the building and busied himself with understanding Twitter, a primitive version, so he decided, of the pheromonal unconscious. He read Archie Tupper's recent output and began to suspect that the American president was, just possibly, "one of us".
♥ While he stretched out on the sofa, Jim found that a tweet was the perfect medium in which to reflect sagely on the Roscoff Affair, as it was now known. His first attempt was feebly derivative. "Clockwiser Larousse is just a loser, and in my view the least effective French President in living memory." In my view – as if there were others. Limp. And no calling it back. The following day the American president was awake early to head the debate from his bed and demonstrate how it was done. "Tiny Sylvie Larousse sinking English ships. BAD!" It was poetry, smoothly combining density of meaning with fleet-footed liberation from detail. Larousse was emasculated, then diminished with a taunt that, true or not (his name was Sylvain, he was five foot nine), must forever be his badge; the fisherman's boat became a ship, the ship became ships; no tedious mention of the dead. The final judgement was childlike and pure, memorable and monosyllabically correct. And the parting flourish of those caps, that laconic exclamation mark! From the land of the free, here was a lesson in imaginative freedom.
♥ He could see opportunities for criminals. Be unemployed, shop relentlessly, stuff a suitcase with cash, hop abroad to some dirty EU economy, open a bank account. Work to earn in Calais, shop to earn in Dover. Bastards. The solution was clear – it was happening anyway. The cashless society would create a digital trail for every pound earned in the shops, and every pound spent on work. Hoarding sums above twenty-five pounds would be a criminal offence, well advertised. Maximum sentence? Best not to be too harsh, not at first. So, five years.
♥ The weather, that dependable emblem of private and national mood, was in turmoil. A five-day, record-breaking rain across the entire country. Like all the lesser rivers, the Thames rose, and Parliament Square languished under four inches of water and much floating plastic and waved-cardboard detritus. The best photographers could not make the scene picturesque. As soon as the rains stopped, a tall heat strode in from the Azores once more and a second, longer heatwave began. For a week, as the floodwaters receded, there was thick smooth silt underfoot everywhere in riverine London.
♥ Also, a life of constant, almost routine struggle had perfected in him effortless mastery in defending all that he possessed – while seeming not to. He was calm in the knowledge that he would prevail. And in this moment of scheming, he was richly self-aware, fully alive to the joy of politics at its purest, which was the pursuit of ends at all costs.
♥ There were other, gentler forms of murder. Contemporary social life was a metaphorical armoury of newly purposed weapons, of tripwires, poisoned darts, land mines waiting for a careless step.
♥ When he was done, he walked up and down within the confined attic space in a state of exultation. There was nothing more liberating than a closely knit sequence of lies. So this was why people became writers.
♥ The one thing everybody knew about Jane Fish was that she smoked a pipe. Everybody also knew that, actually, she didn't. She wasn't even smoker. Years ago, starting out in the humblest, most wretched, least popular job in government, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, she had attended an event in Belfast for an anti-smoking charity. She agreed to take one puff on a pipe and blow the smoke into the face of a child to highlight the dangers of secondary smoking. The little girl's eyes were closed and she did not inhale. But public life is lived in broad strokes. The customary two-day media storm followed. Since Fish was outspoken and often in the news and had a pleasant, unexceptional face, cartoonists had no choice but to keep the pipe in her mouth. For political sketch writers, she would be forever "pipe-smoking Jane Fish." She was popular. In the spectrum of available opinion, she belonged mostly in the no-nonsense faction and was well liked for her stand against breastfeeding in public. She had been a passionate Clockwiser until, respectful or the will of the people, she became a passionate Reversalist. She was admired for speaking well for both.
♥ A holder of one of the great offices of state was in disgrace. Where was the foreign secretary? When was he going to resign? How would the government handle the crisis? What did this mean for Reversalism? When were powerful men going to reform their ways? To this last, the prime minister had a single-word answer.
♥ On the opinion page a younger member of the Guardian staff decreed that the victim was not only always right, but had a right to be believed.
Reading his copy of the paper that afternoon, alone in the Cabinet room, the prime minister found himself, on balance, siding with the latter. The more he read over his own work and admired the layout, the more convincing it became. He had to hand it to Jane. Such vicious, ruthless, heartless lying. Such an insult to real victims of masculine power. He wondered if he himself would ever have dared put his name to the article. Framed and confined within these pages, the story generated its own truth, rather in the way he imagined a nuclear reactor produced its own heat. Whether these things had happened or not, they might well have, they could so easily have, they were bound to have. They had! He was beginning to feel indignant on Jane's behalf. The foreign secretary was a wretch. Worse than that, he was late.
♥ St John reached across the table, pulled the newspaper towards him and opened it out. "You were behind this."
The PM shrugged. "You leaked to The Telegraph."
"Ours was all true. But yours!"
"Ours is true now, Benedict."
♥ It was a defining principle of an open society that everything was lawful until there was a law against it. Beyond Europe's eastern border, in Russia, China and all the totalitarian states of the world, everything was illegal unless the state sanctioned it.
♥ Surely the Greeks had a word for it, choosing to act in one's won very worst interests? Yews, they did. It was akrasia.
♥ In the closing remarks, Jim expressed the hope that before long "the scales would drop from your eyes", a phrase that flummoxed the Bulgarian interpreter in her booth at the back of the hall. The scales would drop, the prime minister said, and everyone would "follow us blindly into the future".
Afterward, a young French diplomat was overheard saying to a colleague as they made their way to the banquet, "I don't understand why they stood to applaud. And so loudly, and for so long."
"Because," his older companion explained, "they detested everything he said."
♥ He was there for a private meeting with the chancellor. It was a busy day for her in the Reichstag and, with much apology, she met with him in a tiny sitting room near her office. Apart from two interpreters, two notetakers, three bodyguards, the German foreign minister, the British ambassador and the second secretary, they were alone.
♥ It was at this point that the chancellor interrupted him. With her elbow on the table, she pressed a hand to her forehead and closed her tired eyes. "Warum?" she said, and followed this word with a brief tangle of others. And again, "Warum..." and a longer tangle. Then the same again. And finally, still with her eyes closed, and her head sinking a little further towards the table, a simple, plaintive, "Warum?"
Tonelessly, the interpreter said, "Why are you doing this? Why, to what end, are you tearing your nation apart? Why are you inflicting these demands on your best friends and pretending we're your enemies? Why?"
Jim's mind went blank. Yes, he was weary from so much travel. There was silence in the room. Across the river a line of schoolchildren was forming up behind a teacher to go into the museum. Standing right behind his chair, the British ambassador softly cleared her throat. It was stuffy. Someone should open a window. There drifted through the PM's mind a number of compelling answers, through he did not utter them. Because. Because that's what we're doing. Because that's what we believe in. Because that's what we said we'd do. Because that's what people said they wanted. Because I've come to the rescue. Because. That, ultimately, was the only answer: because.
♥ The driver, preceded and followed by the outriders, was taking a circuitous route down narrow green roads, past well-kept shacks with quarter-acre gardens, also nicely tended. Little second homes, he assumed. There was a particular greyness to Berlin. A smooth and pleasant grey. It was in the air, in the light sandy soil, in the speckled stonework. Even in the trees and grass and suburban herbaceous borders. It was the cold and spacious grey necessary to sustained thought. As he mused and the chief whip waited, Jim felt his heartbeat slowing and his thoughts arranging themselves into patterns as neat and self-contained as the little houses he was passing. It was as if he was in possession of an ancient brain that could solve any modern problem it confronted. Even without the deep resource of the pheromonal unconscious. Or of the trivial Internet. Without pen and paper. Without advisers.
♥ No one was surprised when Archie Tupper asked a business friend to organise and impromptu conference of Republican lawmakers and the various institutes and think tanks to which they were attracted. These meetings were common, rather devout, well funded, patriotic and convivial. The general drift was pro-life, pro-second amendment, with a strong emphasis on free trade. Mining, construction, oil, defence, tobacco and pharmaceuticals were well represented. Jim now recalled that he himself had been a couple of times, before he became leader of the party. He had only fond memories of affable, portly types of a certain age, with their scented, closely shaven pink faces, gentlemen comfortable in their tuxes. (Few women attended and no people of colour.) One kindly fellow had pressed on him a generous invitation to a million-acre ranch in Idaho. Five minutes later, another promised him a welcome in an antebellum spread in Louisiana. Generous and friendly, they tended to be hostile to any mention of climate change and to international organisations like the UN, NATO and the EU. Jim had felt at home.
♥ To give his speech, the PM stepped into the centre of the circle. As he spoke, his antennae quivered with passion and he rotated slowly on the spot to catch every one's attention.
"My dear colleagues, thank you for these kind thoughts. They touch me deeply. In these closing moments of our mission, our duty is to the truth. This is one that we have never concealed from our brilliant citizens. For the mighty engines of our industry, finance and trade to go into reverse, they must first slow and stop. There will be hardship. It might be punishing in the extreme. I don't doubt that enduring it will harden the people of this great country. But that is no longer our concern. Now that we have cast off our temporary, uncongenial forms, there are deeper truths that we may permit ourselves to celebrate.
"Our kind is at least three hundred million years old. Merely forty years ago, in this city, we were a marginalised group, despised, objects of scorn or derision. At best, we were ignored. At worst, loathed. But we kept to our principles, and very slowly at first, but with gathering momentum, our ideas have taken hold. Our core belief remained steadfast: we always acted in our own best interests. As our Latin name, blattodea, suggests, we are creatures that shun the light. We understand and love the dark. In recent times, these past two hundred thousand years, we have lived alongside humans and have learned their particular taste for that darkness, to which they are not as fully committed as we are. But whenever it is predominant in them, so we have flourished. Where they have embraced poverty, filth, squalor, we have grown in strength. And by tortuous means, and much experiment and failure, we have come to know the preconditions for such human ruin. War and global warming certainly and, in peacetime, immoveable hierarchies, concentrations of wealth, deep superstition, rumour, division, distrust of science, of intellect, of strangers and of social cooperation. You know the list. In the past we have lived through great adversity, including the construction of sewers, the repulsive taste for clean water, the elaboration of the germ theory of disease, peaceful accord between nations. We have indeed been diminished by these and many other depredations. But we have fought back. And now, I hope and believe that we have set in train and conditions of a renaissance. When that peculiar madness, Reversalism, makes the general human population poorer, which it must, we are bound to thrive. If decent, good-hearted, ordinary people have been duped and must suffer, they will be much consoled to know that other decent, good-hearted, ordinary types like ourselves will enjoy greater happiness even as our numbers grow. The net sum of universal wellbeing will not be reduced. Justice remains a constant.
"You have worked hard on you mission these past months. I congratulate and thank you. As you have discovered, it is not easy to be Homo sapiens sapiens. Their desires are so often in contention with their intelligence. Unlike us who are whole. You have each put a human shoulder to the wheel of populism. You have seen the fruits of your labour, for that wheel is beginning to turn. Now, my friends, it is time to make our journey south. To our beloved home! Single file please. Remember to turn left when you go out the door."