Saturday, 18 October 2014

A review of 'The Third Policeman' by Flann O'Brien

     “Not everybody 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 great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.

I was born a long time ago…”

Flann O'Brien - real name, Brian O'Nolan
      That’s the opening of ‘The Third Policeman, ’ by Flann O'Brien, and it contains a psychology of psychopathy. The cool, unemotional account of a violent murder. The ranking of murder as equal in importance to the manufacture of a bicycle-pump, and the instant shifting of blame.

      Flann O’ Brien is known as a ‘comic writer.’ This is a ‘comic novel.’ It’s also a masterpiece.

      It is very funny — and bizarre, poetic and despairing. It’s sinister. This is sinister, eerie, unsettling comedy.

     I first read ‘The Third Policeman’ thirty years ago, and on
re-reading, I find that what I remembered are the most comic scenes — the atomic theory, as applied to bicycles and Irish roads; the men who are more than 75% bicycle; the delicate legal matter of deciding, when a man who is predominately bicycle, commits a murder, which should be hung? The man or the bicycle? And a coffin for a bicycle — 'an intricate piece of joinery.'

      I remembered the book as much more light-hearted than, on re-reading, it actually is. Funny, yes. Comic in the sense of ‘writing that holds human nature up to ridicule.’ But light-hearted? No.

      I still enjoyed the scenes mentioned above — O’Brien’s inventiveness and audacity is second to none — but was more struck by the poetry of many passages, and how frightening much of it is. I’ve read ghost stories that don’t manage to convey such an sense of menace and ill-omen, as O’Brien does in a few lines.

      The prose is beautiful. O'Brien could move, with ease, and often in the same passage, from the cant of the pub, to officialise, to poetry, all in lovely, rolling, perfectly balanced sentences.

          As I read, certain images kept coming into my mind, all drawn from ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,’ with its strange, skewed perspectives.

      “As I came round the bend of the road an extraordinary spectacle was presented to me. About a hundred yards away on the left-hand side was a house which astonished me. It looked as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing. It did not seem to have any depth or breadth and looked as if it would not deceive a child… What bewildered me was the sure knowledge deeply rooted in my mind that this was the house I was searching for… I had never seen with my eyes ever in my life before anything so unnatural and appalling and my gaze faltered about the thing uncomprehendingly as if at least one of the customary dimensions was missing, leaving no meaning in the remainder. The appearance of the house was the greatest surprise I had encountered since I had seen the old man in the chair and I felt afraid of it.”

     This sense of dread, of nothing being quite as it should, pervades the book — and is part of the very narration, with its cool, detached, measured descriptions of terrors and shocks.

     The nameless narrator — he can’t remember his own name — is an orphan who, due to an accident, has a wooden leg. (The book was written in the late1930s, before the development of modern prosthetics.) He has inherited a fortune, but by the time he is adult and returns to his farm, the money has been squandered by the caretaker, John Divney.

     Both the narrator and Divney are keen to replenish the fortune — Divney so he can marry, and the narrator so he can publish a book on the scientist, De Selby, with whom he has become obsessed.

     Asides and footnotes on De Selby make up a substantial part of the book, adding both to its oddness, humour and its cool, detached manner. They often discuss the competing interpretations and evaluations of De Selby’s life and work by other scholars, revealing — distantly — a world of academic spite and in-fighting.

      Among De Selby’s theories is the notion that darkness is a contaminating vapour which emanates from holes in the earth, and contributes to disease because we inhale it. (This theory was once genuinely held in our world, before it was established that darkness is an absence of light, rather than a thing in itself.)
       De Selby also argues that if we angle enough mirrors, to give enough successive reflections of ourselves, we could look into our past. He claims, by setting up mirrors, to have glimpsed himself at the age of eleven. He also claims that it would be possible to travel by sitting in a room and looking at a selection of photographs of our journey.

      Many of these theories seem to be twisted, or over-literal understandings of relativity or quantum theory. Their twisting of time and space seems to relate to the literally twisted perspective in the description of the book’s world.

      In pursuit of fortune, the narrator and Divney murder the old man, Mathers. Divney makes off with the cash-box, which he hides, saying they must spend none of the money until suspicion has died down.

      Eventually, Divney reveals where he has hidden the box — in Mather’s house. They go together, one night, to the deserted half-ruinous murder house, and while Divney waits outside, the narrator goes in to fetch the box.

      From this moment on, the book, already strange, becomes increasingly bizarre.

      The narrator climbs through a window.

      “I clambered through the opening and found myself,
not at once in a room, but crawling along the deepest window-ledge I have ever seen. When I reached the floor and jumped noisily down upon it, the open window seemed very far away and much too small to have admitted me.”

      He discovers that the cash-box has gone. And then:—

      “I heard a cough behind me, soft, and natural yet more disturbing than any sound that could come upon the human ear. That I did not die of fright was due to two things, the fact that my senses were already disarranged and also that…the cough seemed to bring with it some more awful alteration in everything, just as if it had held the universe standstill for an instant…"

      The narrator then takes tea with the old man he has murdered.

      I don’t want to spoil the book by detailing any of the narrator’s adventures after that. Suffice to say that he meets with two enormous policemen, Sergeant Pluck and Constable MacCruiskeen, and also with his own soul. We learn about MacCruiskeen’s far from simple hobbies, and more about De Selby’s experiments.

      We meet the brotherhood of one-legged men, visit Eternity and, eventually, meet the third policeman, Sergeant Fox.

      If the book has a message, I think it might be that Evil is self-centred, self-aggrandising, futile and barren. And, possibly, that to be such a person is its own punishment, though the Evil are incapable of understanding that. They will go on their egoistical way, fancying themselves winners and superior, and never for a moment appreciating what they lack.
       In fact, a lack of understanding is perhaps one of the themes of the book. The narrator obsessively studies the works of De Selby, trying to understand them, and wishing to make them better known  - but his understanding of the world around him seems to have dwindled as his knowledge of De Selby increases. And De Selby is a model of intelligent obtuseness.

      The Third Policeman is a book that blends a keen sense of wonder and beauty, with poetry, comedy, horror and despair.

      I don’t think there is another book like it — except those others by Flann O’Brien, whose real name was Brian O'Nolan.

      His first novel, At-Swim-Two-Birds (also a must-read) was published, and acclaimed, in 1939.

     The Third Policeman was his second novel, and it was turned down. It wasn’t published until 1967, after the author’s death, when it was recognised as the wonderful piece of writing it was.

      I wonder if, these days, it would be published at all?


madwippitt said...

He might have Kindled it though :-) I shall go look this up and add it to my tottering pile ...

Anonymous said...

It's,funny how,we can so dramatically misremember the very character of a book. I'm just 're reading catch 22 and I had remembered it as funny and satirical. But I had forgotten just how unrelentingly dark and cynical, misanthropic, bleak and hopeless it is.

Susan Price said...

Would another reader remember the cynicism and forget the humour? - I suppose it must be true that what we remember from a book and what we forget says something about us.