The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

In the snow it is best to read a book by someone long dead.

With this in mind, yesterday I read The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien; a whimsical, lyrical, melancholy thing. It was never published in O’Brien’s lifetime (see how accurately the snow accumulates?) despite his admirers including Joyce and Beckett. It is, as reads the most perfect blurb I’ve read for some time, ‘A murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic vision of eternity, the story of a tender, brief, unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle and a chilling fable of unending guilt.’

The novel’s first sentence is a measure of what is to follow:

Not everyone knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.

Having murdered with some success, our narrator (unnamed, orphaned, an unemployed scholar) is surprised (in truth, he is somewhat shaken) to discover his victim alive and not a bit accusatory. It is altogether an ‘insoluble pancake’. He is nonplussed to find that his soul is an irascible fellow called Joe. He will later come upon an lonely constabulary that contains two policeman who know the road to eternity, and will take him there; he will learn of a postman who is at least 75% bicycle and meet the leader of a deadly gang of one-legged men.

The snow piles quite imperceptibly.

The Third Policeman is a remarkable novel, an almost-allegory of purgatorial eternity and an expertly conjured vision of absurdity. O’Brien is a superb lyricist and writes frequent passages of unexpected beauty; he spirits the languid airs and heaths and bogs of rural Ireland into existence with ease. And he can be very funny: the novel is peppered with footnotes pertaining to the obscure theories of De Selby, a man of ‘many ingenious if not convincing’ arguments including for the ‘accretions of black air’ of which he thinks night is chiefly composed. O’Brien excels at these deftly ironic, mock-academic asides.

The whole novel is written in a sort of verbose, aloof, aphoristic chatter (which I find entirely suits the twilit impossibility of snowed streets) – it is the bewildering exposition of a virtuouso eccentricity. It is trivial, delicate and weighty separately, and then is all three at once. O’Brien succeeds in sustaining a totally absorbing, constantly inventive, disconcerting, morbid, surreal narrative, and in transcribing what appears to be the occasional whitterings of an estranged second cousin of profundity. Recommended.

And after all it is best to read in the snow of the dead.

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One response to “The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

  1. I really do love your reviews. I think this one I’d almost rather read through your eyes than through the narrative itself.

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