Flann O’Brien: A man with a brain like “an ivy near where swallows fly”
Whizzing around Portobello Road on a Saturday afternoon, trying to avoid somatic collision with supernumerary tourists, I popped into the Oxfam bookshop and elbowed my way to the fiction section; snapped-up a Flann O’Brien paperback and hastily elbowed my way out. The Third Policeman, O’Brien’s second novel, failed to interest his publisher on the basis of being even more preternaturally “fantastic” than his debut. O’Brien’s first book, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published in a spectacularly fortuitous turn when Graham Greene, then on the editorial staff of Longman’s, deemed it nothing short of brilliant, later saying he read it with the sort of “amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage”. Unfortunately, his second book didn’t quite garner as much momentum and remained locked away in a draw of O’Brien’s escritoire for the next two decades.
The Third Policeman opens with a murder confession by an innominate narrator who dispassionately imparts onto the reader that he has killed “old Philip Mathers”, by smashing his jaw in with a spade, after his co-conspirator, John Divney, struck the “queer mean” eremite down with a “special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself”. The ostensible subject of the narration concerns the murder committed by the two men in order to steal a money box which is then hidden in the old man’s house until “things quiet down”. And once they do, the narrator insists on retrieving it himself. As well as being a murderer, he is also a proselyte of a sophist academician known as De Selby who believes that happiness is not “un-associated with water” which “if not abused, can achieve absolute superiority” and argues that the earth is not round but curvilinear like a sausage. Upon entering Mathers’ home, the narrator experiences a sudden “inscrutably subtle, yet momentous” change and “an awful alteration in everything” which “holds the universe at a standstill for an instant, suspending the planets in their courses, halting the sun and holding in mid-air any falling thing the earth is pulling towards it”. This is the first indication of the hypnagogic playful chaos, supernatural gambols and corybantic vignettes that are to unfold in the next 200-odd pages.
While in the house the narrator enjoys the hospitality of the man he murdered and “buried in a field”. The money box, in his eyeshot, suddenly and miraculously vanishes while he, unable to move, sits on the floor staring at old man Mathers in a “spellbound gaze”. From this point onward events take an aberrant turn, deviating from all ratiocination, and bending toward the absurd as the narrator discovers his soul whom he names Joe and sets off on a sojourn in search of the money box which leads him to an strange police station and a pair of policemen who “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”.
Peculiar characters such as “brother of the wooden leg”, De Selby, women in “very advanced stages of sexuality,” Joe the soul, Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen feature throughout the book and partake in the symbiosis of finely tuned humour and nonsense dialogue. The conversations between the characters range from the philosophical to the banal and the downright dotty. In the opening chapters, Mathers, for example, explains his ideology on life, to the narrator, by saying: “I discovered that everything you do is in response to a request or a suggestion made to you by some other party either inside you or outside. Some of these suggestions are good and praiseworthy and some of them are undoubtedly delightful. But the majority of them are definitely bad and are pretty considerable sins as sins go… I therefore decided to say No henceforth to every suggestion, request or inquiry whether inward or outward.” The polemic here contains all the pragmatic precepts of socio-political liberty. And while meditations of such nature abound, they are simultaneously on a par with balderdash madcap dialectic riddles, such as for example when the narrator arrives at the station and meets Sergeant Pluck, who greets him with his very own catchphrase: “Nearly every sickness is from the teeth.” The two men go on to have a conversation, revolving mainly around the subject of bicycles, rat-trap pedals, the dangers of loose plates, pumps, high-saddles, wooden rims, white pneumatics and an “American gold watch” which the narrator reports to have been stolen. To which Sergeant Pluck replies incredulously: “Why should anybody steal a watch when they can steal a bicycle?” Before adding that once the watch is recovered he shall “have to start searching for the owner”. Every premise of every exchange is based on deviatory logic, most leading to the subject of bicycles, which makes for a disjointed, absurdist dynamic with a streak of slapstick binding the consecutive chapters together.
The narrator’s encounter with the second policeman is even more cryptic as he finds himself bamboozled by MacCruiskeen’s impromptu orphic performance with a “little small piano” and brass pins of tunes “that cannot be appreciated by the human earcup”. MacCruiskeen’s astonishment at the narrator’s “no-bike status” outdoes that of Sergeant Pluck’s, so much so that he urges the former to document it saying “that is a story that would make your golden fortune if you wrote down in a book”. Bicycles loom heavily throughout and eventually lead the narrator to Sergeant Pluck’s aoristic Atomic Theory which dictates that “everything is composed of small particles if itself and they are flying around in concentric circles…They are as lively as twenty leprechauns doing a jig on a tombstone…The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadstead of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of atoms” thus becoming “half people and half bicycles”. The events in this crackpot masterwork confound the reader as much as the narrator, who finds himself “packed tight with fears and miscellaneous apprehensions” with the turning of every page. O’Brien’s subversively crackbrained satire is laden with topsy-turvy twists and dazzling gags but also with an underlying cynicism which comes together in a perfect syzygy. The wisdoms dispensed throughout are chaotically prodigious and mind-buckling, but the strabismic goes in hand with the profound to form a plane of comic genius.
The eponymous policeman is remarked upon throughout, but neither Pluck nor MacCruiskeen see him “because he is always on his beat and never off it and he signs the book in the middle of the night when even a badger is asleep. He is as mad as a hare, he never interrogates the public and he is always taking notes.” Too preoccupied with bicycles and bicycle theft, to the oversight of all other crimes, they are the masters of a sort of barometric equilibrium in the environment which is in constant threat of falling into anarchy. Somewhere mid-way through the book the story moves away from the murder and the quest for the box and transverses into a thesis on bicycles, with the narrator’s own annotations conveyed through De Selby’s scholastic teachings and Joe’s commentary. It later retrogresses back to its original premise and the innominate raconteur finds himself a suspect in the crime for which he cannot be punished because he’s nameless – until Sergeant Pluck contradicts this theory by saying: “For that reason alone, we can take you and hang the life out of you and you are not hanged at all and there is no entry to be made in the death papers. The particular death you die is not even a death only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard, a piece of negative nullity neutralised and rendered void by asphyxiation and the fracture of the spinal string. ”
O’Brien’s knack for the downright cranked is spellbinding and reflected best in the virtuoso dialogue, which often revolves around the most disparate subjects such as the lather in a cow’s mouth, German steam engines, brains like “an ivy near where swallows fly” and one’s inability to “make fire without a brick” or definitions of words such as omnium which is the “essence inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the roof of the kernel of everything and it is always the same,” and bulbuls which is not “one of those elastic articles that ladies wear” but a variety of “Persian nightingale”. Nothing in The Third Policeman is as it seems and follows the thought that “anything you do is a lie and nothing that happens to you is true”. Thus the idea of human-bicycles and travelling through a passage “with bolted sheets of pig iron” to eternity, where there is an “eight day clock” and one’s beard does not grow, becomes fully conceivable, if surreal. The plot orbits in concentric circles and the narrator ends up where he begins, or rather the reverse, meeting Policeman Fox, who in exchange for the money box offers him a “house packed full of strawberry jam, every room so full that you could not open the door”. And that ties-in quite nicely with the arbitrary scheme of things. Beyond that there is no real plot, no discernible storyline, nor method to the madness, but rather an unconditional flouting of literary convention and surrender to the bizarre and hilarious pandemonium of infinite regress which makes The Third Policeman a “monkey work of no mean order”. In other words: superb.
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