A friend was telling me recently about a terrible predicament that she and her family found themselves in. After I'd expressed my shock and concern, and agreed that there was obviously no short-term solution, the only way I could think of cheering her up was by making some vague attempt at humor.
"How awful," I said. "It's as if you'd suddenly become a character in a Dickens novel, and you're not of an age now to cope with all that drama. Or perhaps, worse still, a character in a Balzac novel."
"Yes, a Balzac novel -- all that embezzlement and opprobrium," she said, and chuckled, as if, despite the awfulness of her family's all too real circumstances, she had found some fleeting consolation to think of herself as a protagonist of some 19th-century novel.
So much fiction has rained down on us since Dickens and Balzac that nowadays, whatever your predicament, you can't help but be reminded of a situation you've read about or seen in a movie or on television -- that is, to feel that you've already experienced this problem you're encountering for the first time, even though you've already seen it or read about it.
In a way, almost nothing really surprises us any more, because we're surrounded by worlds in which "everything has happened." One of the children who survived the recent air accident at Barajas International Airport in Madrid kept asking desperately and with understandable impatience: "When is the movie going to end?"
We all asked ourselves a similar question seven years ago when we watched on our television screens as two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers in New York and a third crashed into the Pentagon in Washington. Much the same thing occurs with each new atrocity or catastrophe, whether it's a hurricane, a war, a tsunami or some ruthless settling of scores among drug-dealers.
"This is just like in that movie, in that series, in that comic, in that story," we say.
Our perception of almost everything that happens, even if it doesn't affect us directly, is influenced by that deluge of fictions. It's worrying enough that we allow ourselves to be guided by this deluge, but it's perhaps even more worrying that our leaders -- who have been equally steeped in television and cinema, especially in the days when they were still normal human beings -- should imitate, whether intentionally or not, everything they've seen on the screen or admired in comics (most of them, I fear, do not read books).
What is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi but a bad and unfunny imitation of the characters played by the actor Alberto Sordi, who, as the Italian journalist Concita de Gregorio has pointed out, combined cynicism and unscrupulousness with servility and unctuousness?
And isn't the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, with his vociferous curses against the United States, the small, fat, childish king who makes appearances in the Tintin and Capitan Trueno adventures? (It's easy to imagine Chavez dressed in a pointed crown and christening robe and baring his barrel chest.)
And isn't Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin the spitting image of the cold-blooded assassin who shoots when the cymbals sound in the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock film, "The Man Who Knew Too Much"?
Doesn't Sarah Palin, with her spiky bangs, strange glasses and fanatical determination, resemble the KGB spies in films about the Cold War?
Doesn't President Nicolas Sarkozy of France resemble a buskined Mighty Mouse, always ready to fly off to some far-flung corner of the world to solve a problem?
If you keep thinking, you'll see that there are real reasons to be alarmed by this wave of fictional resemblances, because the trouble is, life is very much for real.
(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.)
Javier Marias is an award-winning author and columnist based in Madrid, Spain. His work has been translated into 34 languages. His most recent book is the novel Tu Rostro Manana 3: Veneno y Sombra y Adios.
By Javier Marias