The Third Policeman – Flann O’Brien
In a Desert Island Discs moment – cue sound of herring gulls and Eric Coates’ In a Sleepy Lagoon – I was asked what my favourite book was and without hesitation I nominated one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I then paused for thought and concluded that there were so many literary genres that it was difficult to put one style above another. Without doubt, one my favourite comedic writers is the Irishman Brian O’Nolan aka Flann O’Brien and Myles na Gopaleen.
It was probably a combination of this rather innocent enquiry, my fulminations on Susanna Clark’s use of footnotes and my pontifications on Epicurean atomic theory that persuaded me to pick up The Third Policeman again, a novel I hadn’t read for some thirty years or so. It was submitted for publication in 1940 but timing was against it – there was a war on, don’t you know, although not in Dublin, and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake had probably banjaxed the publisher’s zeal for surrealistic works of Irish humour – although this book is a different sort of pancake altogether . It didn’t see the light of day until 1967, a year after O’Brien’s death, an age more in tune with this dark exploration of the life, death and the inner soul, called Joe.
The twists and turns and surprises along the way are best left to the individual reader to discover. Suffice it to say that the book starts out with a brutal murder by the unnamed narrator who has a wooden leg, a key attribute as the story unfolds, and his accomplice, John Divney. The narrator returns for the murdered man’s box of goodies but then enters into another world where geometry, time, space, distance, physical laws are all to sea and the custodians of this other world are three policemen whose primary concern is bicycles and the theft thereof. The plotting is so dense and dramatic that you feel that you are reading a much longer book than its 200 or so pages.
Much of the book’s humour is to be found in its footnotes which must be read in which we explore the lunatic world of the cod savant, de Selby, held by many to be a nincompoop. De Selby hit upon the idea that if he locked himself in a room with a quantity of picture postcards and instrumentation that could alter atmospheric and climatic conditions, he could travel to Folkestone and back without stirring. Noticing that light takes a fraction of time to travel, he theorised that by constructing a series of properly aligned mirrors the viewer would see into the past -wonderful and in the context of what is happening in the narrative of the book almost logical.
A central conceit of the book is that atoms transfer from a bicycle to its rider and the policemen mount a bicycle crime-wave to reduce bicycle usage amongst those whose level of bike atom transfer is deemed to be too high.
The world in which the narrator finds himself is bizarre, amazing and yet perfectly believable and at the end the reader realises he is trapped in a Kafkaesque form of Groundhog day hell. The prose is sparse but has a lyrical, musical quality – it is really carefully crafted – that carries us along from one absurdity to the next. And it contains one of my favourite quotes which I call to mind to defeat my procrastinatory tendencies, “it is a great thing to do what is necessary before it becomes essential and unavoidable.”
Is it about a bicycle? No, much more than that and a true classic.