Conventional wisdom says Joseph Heller's 1961 novel Catch-22 is impossible to translate to screen. That puts it alongside great works like James Joyce's Ulysses and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude. No one has been brave enough to try these two but some supposedly "unfilmable" books have made it on to the screen. Terry Gilliam had a go at Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and JG Ballard's High Rise also made it to cinemas. Filming the "unfilmable" is a creative challenge and the results – including the new Catch-22 TV mini-series – can receive mixed reviews, but the publicity for Catch-22 made me re-read the novel itself.
The book was written in the 1950s when memories of the Second World War were still fresh. The key character, Yossarian, thinks he can escape combat by pretending to be crazy. But the catch is that war itself is so crazy that only a crazy person would want to fight. The term Catch-22 comes from one of the key characters, Doc Daneeka.
"You mean there's a catch?” Yossarian says.
"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.”
Trying to be sane in a crazy situation made me think of Brexit. Britain's prime minister – our third in three years – is Boris Johnson. We have endured the kind of conveyor belt of political leaders more familiar to Italy than Britain. Mr Johnson has a reputation for not always telling the truth. He has been fired twice, once by a newspaper, once by the former Conservative leader Michael Howard, for dishonesty. Now he says he intends to shut down, or "prorogue", the British Parliament to prepare for exciting ideas he has about crime and health care. Nothing to do with Brexit, he claims.
An Ipsos-Mori poll shows that 70 per cent of voters simply do not believe him. Faced with the greatest political and constitutional crisis since 1939, British voters think Mr Johnson wants to close down the core of our democracy – Parliament – and is lying about it. While that thought sinks in, he also raised his own Catch-22 moment. Mr Johnson argues that the more Parliament tries to block a no-deal Brexit, "the more likely it is that we'll end up in that situation”. This is Britain’s Doc Daneeka speaking. Does anyone believe that the more you resist something, the more likely it is to happen?
Joseph Heller’s novel is a satire on the human capacity for self-delusion. It ends with one of the American characters, Milo Minderbender, bombing his own airfield because he is paid to do so by the Germans. Hilarious. But in real life, a no-deal Brexit would be Britain bombing its own economy, harming our reputation abroad and dislocating medical and food supplies, and industrial production. Such an act is being contemplated by a prime minister whose words are – to repeat – not trusted by a significant majority of the British population, and who has no clear mandate from voters and (probably) no real majority in Parliament.
Parliament this week will resist Mr Johnson. His credibility even among some of his own Conservative MPs is low. One prominent Conservative MP has described him publicly as a charlatan. Others, including the highly respected Conservative leader in Scotland Ruth Davidson has just quit her leadership position, citing family reasons. Ms Davidson is not making a fuss but other Tory MPs are seething. Some are on the edge of open revolt. Welcome, therefore, to Catch-22 Britain.
We have a prime minister who claims that to achieve a Brexit deal, we must spend millions planning for a no deal he says he doesn’t want, but which will happen on October 31, “do or die”. He persists in demanding changes to the agreement negotiated by his predecessor – changes the European Union has consistently rejected as impossible. He says he is doing this in the name of “democracy” and the Westminster Parliament “taking back control” from the European Union, while simultaneously threatening to shut down that Parliament, without a general election or a second referendum now the facts about Brexit are more widely known. The script for all this is not unfilmable, but to many MPs and the hundreds of thousands of British people who have been taking to the streets in protest, it is unacceptable. It is unlikely to end well for Mr Johnson, or for the UK.
Is an alternative happier ending even possible? Perhaps. Former British prime minister Gordon Brown has suggested the European Union could simply and unilaterally tell Britain there is no longer any deadline to leave the EU on October 31. Imagine a friend is threatening to jump off a cliff. No matter what you say, he yells that he will jump anyway. You cannot stop the person, but what if you take the cliff away? Removing any deadline would not compromise any EU principles and it would instantaneously make Mr Johnson's huffing and puffing about "do or die" seem even more ridiculous than it does now.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter