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Marc Estrin, 'Insect Dreams. The Half Life of Gregor Samsa'

Blue Hen Books 2002. ISBN 0 399 14836 1. 468pp

Perhaps if I had known who half the (predominantly) men in this book were before I read it, Marc Estrin's novel could have been quite irritating. Thankfully my ignorance of famous 20th Century male thinkers, scientists, inventors and so on, probably saved me!

In fact, I rather liked this book. Its main character is one Gregor Samsa - half-man, half-cockroach. Samsa is an escapee from a Kafka novel (Metamorphosis) and this is a tale which reflects on some of the last century's most significant international political events - primarily the Second World War and the development of nuclear weapons (though Roosevelt's “New Deal” and the general rise in fascism across Europe in the 1930s, plus the various inventions and developments in ideas, are also there).

Having never read any Kafka either, I had nothing to judge the, roach concept or Gregor's character by. Again, I think this is probably a good thing. Other reviewers have claimed it as both an “audacious” and “outrageous” premise “especially for a first novel”, but I thought it was fine - why not have ,roach-man as the central character in a novel?

From humble beginnings as an entity to be viewed in an Austrian freakshow, via chats with Wittgenstein, a stint at a US insurance company (developing the concept of “risk-management”) and a sojourn in a kitchen cupboard in FDR's White House, he ultimately gets embroiled in the nefarious nuclear goings-on at Los Alamos.

Estrin portrays Gregor as a slightly naive - but very likeable - roachman, who doesn't seem to comprehend the horrible machinations of “big politics”, as when he protests to FDR about the US's unwillingness to help the Jewish and other communities persecuted and killed by the Nazis, or when he cannot reconcile the inherent “goodness” in some of his Los Alomos colleagues and the terrible bomb they are about to unleash on the world.

So, given that I probably didn't get half the references, I got a lot out of this book. I looked forward to my nightly 20 minutes of “Gregor's adventures” and will miss him now he's gone!

Topics: Culture