THE THIRD POLICEMAN
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).
Flann O'Brien was one of the pseudonyms of Brian O'Nolan. Many people, including me, would say he was one of the great Irish writers. His books are like no one else's. This novel may seem to belong to a genre (that of books purportedly describing the after-death experiences of their central character) but, like everything else by this author, its tone is unique. It might perhaps be compared to Lewis Carroll's Alice books, but transposed into a darker key and rendered into Irish idiom.
The ostensible subject of the narration concerns a murder, committed by the anonymous narrator and an accomplice in order to steal a money box belonging to a rich reclusive. The accomplice makes off with the money and the narrator (one could scarcely call him the hero) embarks on a search to find it. This leads him to a most peculiar police station, containing a pair of extraordinary policemen who (in O'Brien's own description of his book) "do not confine their investigations or activities to this world or to any known planes or dimensions. Their most casual remarks create a thousand other mysteries…"
Bicycles are a recurrent theme throughout. One of the policemen is obsessed by them and he explains to the narrator that the more people ride, the more they take on the character of their machines until eventually they become bicycles themselves. The second policeman is an inventor who constructs fantastic machines, some of which are too small to be seen. The pair take the narrator on a tour of an underground storehouse where you can get anything you wish for, but you cannot take any of it to the surface. The eponymous third policeman appears only at the end of the book, when he brings about the denouement.
I would have to describe the book as a comedy, for it is certainly extremely funny, but the nightmarish and sinister are never quite absent and, at the end, the narrator finds that both he and his accomplice are trapped for ever in this dreamlike world, rather like the characters in J-P Sartre's Huis Clos. The narrator describes his adventures in rather formal, even prissy, tones. He is obsessed with a fictitious philosopher called de Selby, whose absurd opinions are discussed in long pseudo-scholarly footnotes. The other characters, in contrast, and especially the policemen, speak in a wonderfully allusive way that conveys the intonations of Irish speech without ever needing the props of phonetic spelling. This can only be conveyed by quotation.
When I penetrated back to the dayroom I encountered two gentlemen called Sergeant Pluck and Mr Gilhaney and they were holding a meeting about the question of bicycles.And here is the Sergeant describing the atomic theory.
"Did you never study atomics when you were a lad?" asked the Sergeant, giving me a look of great inquiry and surprise.This sort of thing goes on for pages, becoming ever more inventive and intricate. Sheer delight.
See also At Swim-Two-Birds
21 April 2005
%T The Third Policeman
%A O'Brien, Flann
%I Dalkey Archive Press
%D 1967, 1999
%G ISBN 1-56478-214
%P xiii + 200 pp
%O introduction by Denis Donaghue
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