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Flann O'Brien


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.

"I do not believe in the three-speed gear at all," the Sergeant was saying, "it is a new-fangled instrument, it crucifies the legs, the half of the accidents are due to it."

"It is a power for the hills," said Gilhaney, "as good as a second pair of pins or a diminutive petrol motor."

"It is a hard thing to tune," said the Sergeant, "you can screw the iron lace that hangs out of it till you get no catch on the pedals. It never stops the way you want it, it would remind you of bad jaw-plates."

"That is all lies," said Gilhaney.

"Or like the pegs of a fairy-fiddle," said the Sergeant, "or a skinny wife in the craw of a cold bed in springtime."

"Not that," said Gilhaney.

"Or porter on a sick stomach," said the Sergeant.

"So help me not," said Gilhaney.

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.

"No," I answered.

"That is a very serious defalcation," he said, "but all the same I will tell you the size of it. Everything is composed of small particles of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometrical figures too numerous to mention collectively never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go. These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms. Do you follow me intelligently?"


"They are as lively as twenty leprechauns doing a jig on top of a tombstone."


"Now take a sheep," the Sergeant said. "What is a sheep only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling round and doing intricate convolutions inside the sheep? What else is it but that?"

"That would be bound to make the beast dizzy," I observed, "especially if the whirling was going on inside the head as well."

The Sergeant gave me a look which I am sure he himself would describe as one of non-possum and noli-me-tangere.

"That remark is what may well be called buncombe," he said sharply, "because the nerve-strings and the sheep's head itself are whirling into the same bargain and you can cancel one out against the other and there you are—like simplifying a division sum when you have fives above and below the bar."

"To say the truth I did not think of that," I said.

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
%K fiction
%O introduction by Denis Donaghue

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