"I will really miss being an EU citizen"

Ian McEwan checks his mobile phone at the press conference in Barcelona, where he was asked about Brexit.
Ian McEwan checks his mobile phone at the press conference in Barcelona, where he was asked about Brexit. / Quique García/EFE
  • Ian McEwan surprises his readers again with the acidic 'Nutshell', narrated by a foetus who emulates Hamlet

The solemn spirit of Hamlet, which flows through the pages of Ian McEwan's latest novel Nutshell, was also very present at the press conference held by the writer in Barcelona recently to talk about the forthcoming Kosmópolis literary festival.

The British author, who is known for his temperament and being controversial, as well as producing brilliant, complex and surprising work, was at his most acerbic when asked about the present situation in his own country, which he has compared with Nazi Germany.

He didn't hold back in his criticism of Brexit, using sharp and vehement language. "This was done by plebiscite, it reminds me of the Third Reich," he said about the process, which he considers a total disaster from a social, cultural and economic point of view, especially because it is pushing Parliament in a corner "and that is where sovereignty should lie in a parliamentary democracy".

"Something smells very bad in England. The air is loaded, it's rotting," he added.

Nor did he have anything good to say about the political leaders who are handling the withdrawal from the EU, who he described as a small group of energetic, murky and impatient politicians.

"They say they represent the people, but they are disparaging about the other half of the population. If you don't agree with what they are doing, they say you are an enemy of the people. The 16 million British people who wanted to stay in the EU feel like orphans. We have no representation," he said.

For McEwan, the European Union has been "a heroic project" which has enabled Europe to live in peace for 60 years, has brought greater wellbeing than ever before and has resulted in "extraordinary things" such as being able to travel from Slovenia to Calais without a passport. "I will really miss being part of the European Union," he said.

The author, who usually transmits his critical view of the world in his novels, often using satire and irony, and adopting creative and original ways of developing the art of writing, has once again surprised his readers with the complexity and wonder of his most recent book. Nutshell, which was published last year, is totally unexpected: the focus is on an intrauterine narrator who is capable of holding all types of disquisitions upon the divine and the human, with clear parallels with Hamlet.

"How is it possible that I, who am not even young, who wasn't born yesterday, knows so much, or enough to be mistaken about so many things?" asks the aforementioned baby, who witnesses in perplexity the story of a betrayal. His mother and her lover are plotting to get rid of his father, in the way that Gertrude and Claudius plan to kill the king in Shakespeare's text. On that occasion the motive for the crime was to put Elsinor on the throne, but in this book the conspirators want to get their hands on a seven-million-pound house.

This is not the first time that McEwan has taken a classic as a reference and rewritten it in his own way. He did the same in Saturday, which was a reflection of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, and this time he is using Hamlet to give his acidic opinion on existence, in an intelligent and daring tale about betrayal and assassination, brilliantly told in the manner of a thriller.

Why did he decide to use a foetus as the narrator? It is a symbol, he says, a way of reflecting "the impotence that I feel so often in the face of current politics". Hamlet also felt helpless, and the same applies to the intrauterine person who observes the terrible events without being able to intervene.

For Ian McKewan, this novel is a compendium of his professional career. "I have been able to portray all the violence and cruelty in it, but also the love, the hope and also my passion for poetry, for Shakespeare," he says. His literary influences include Virginia Woolf, Kafka and the Victorian author Anthony Trollope, who McKewan considers better than Dickens because of his skill in describing characters.