Flann O’Brien wrote to the American writer William Saroyan seventy-six years ago this Valentine’s Day – which is, as I write this, today’s tomorrow, today incidentally being, by equally timely reference, Hell’s Birthday according to Medieval scholars – to announce that he had completed a new novel. He briefly described the conceit of his inventive, unconventional, and, he hoped, humorous tale but, much to his dismay, his publisher declined to publish the work. He followed this rejection with an attempt to secure American interest, but despite the enthusiasm of a literary agent, a willing publisher could not be found. Rejected now on either side of the Atlantic, the Irish writer (whose real name was Brian Ó Nualláin) claimed that the manuscript had gone missing and let the matter lie. As a result The Third Policeman would not be published until 1967, a year after its author’s death.
Delighting in a mischievous engagement with the English language, O’Brien’s dark comic novel sets out to tell the tale of a deeply self-focused young man who finds himself on a convoluted metaphysical journey through a strange land – one that seems to be a curiously stranger version than the one from which he originated, but, single minded as he is, he never fully realizes the true nature of this weird world of eccentric policemen, outlandish theories, and bicycle logic. Throughout it all our hero relies an even odder philosophical compass, the works of a scientific theorist named De Selby who posited a set of theorems about the nature of reality so outrageous that even his young acolyte and his most devoted commentators are frequently at a loss to explain them. The result is a brilliantly skewed meditation on the nature of existence: of life, death and the passage of time.
Quite simply, The Third Policeman begins with a murder and with our nameless narrator’s open admission of his full and active role in this brutal act. But, to put it in context, he will then step back in time to explain how he came to be on a rural road, spade in hand, smashing the skull of an old man. A mistake, he admits, but one for which he can never begin to accept moral responsibility. Our hero, likable as he is in his tribulations, is not a heroic man. Spooling back in time, we learn that the narrator was orphaned young. The farm and pub run by his parents is left to the care of a man named John Divney while the erstwhile heir is sent off to boarding school. It is at school that the protagonist first encounters the work of de Selby – the day he finds a tattered copy of the obscure wise man’s Golden Hours in the science master’s study is one that he remembers with more acuity than his own birthday. By the time he graduates a few years later, he has stolen the volume and packed it into his bags. Sourcing de Selby’s other works and those of his primary commentators occupies his immediate months and travels following his school years and on his journeys, he breaks his left leg in an accident (or as he famously puts it, has broken for him). Thus he arrives home to the farm with one wooden leg.
Divney, as it happens, stays on to work the farm and the manage the pub, taking to both tasks with little energy or honesty, while the narrator devotes himself to intense, obsessive study of de Selby. For him, the rest of the world holds little fascination, but Divney, who continually complains of a lack of funds, tires of the rural bachelor existence and fancies taking a wife. Ultimately he hatches a plan to rob and murder Mathers, a reclusive, retired cattleman who is known to carry a cashbox with him at all times. Playing into the narrator’s desire to be able to publish the results of his impassioned studies and, ultimately, make his name by elucidating hitherto misunderstood facets of the great man’s philosophy, Divney secures himself an accomplice.
In the aftermath of the murder, the stolen cash box disappears, Divney insisting that it has been secured in a safe place where it ought to remain until any fuss blows over. The narrator does not trust this explanation and for an entire year he adheres himself to his farmhand, barely letting him out of his sight for a minute. Finally he is assured that it would be safe to retrieve the box so, on Divney’s instructions, he sneaks into Mathers’ abandoned house, finds the loose floorboard that supposedly conceals the cashbox and no sooner does he grasp the box than it is pulled from his hand.
And that’s when things get weird.
Firstly our protagonist – who is now truly nameless, for even if asked he can no longer recall his name – becomes aware of the presence of the very man he helped dispatch from the world of the living, clearly alive if not especially well and sitting in the corner of the room. Then, as he tries to make sense of this ghostly gentleman, he suddenly encounters, from within himself, his own soul; an immediate and intimate companion he names “Joe”. From this point on, Joe takes on the often thankless task of playing the role of his host’s better angel and logical voice of reason.
Still intent on securing the whereabouts of the vanished cashbox, the narrator engages old man Mathers in an interrogation that, after a series of inquires that raise little more than a negative response, leads to an explication of colour and its relation to the length of an individual’s life. Hearing about a trio of intuitive policemen who are gifted with the ability to perceive the colour of the prevailing wind at the time of a person’s birth, our hero decides to seek out their assistance in his search for the cashbox. He spends the night in Mather’s house and the following morning he sets out down the road. Here the text, judiciously footnoted, turns to one of several interludes where the wisdom of de Selby is evoked:
“… de Selby makes the point that a good road will have character and a certain air of destiny, an indefinable intimation that it is going somewhere, be it east or west, and not coming back from there. If you go with such a road he thinks, it will give you a pleasant travelling, fine sights at every corner and a gentle ease of peregrination that will persuade you that you are walking forever on falling ground. But if you go east on a road that is on its way west, you will marvel at the unfailing bleakness of every prospect and the great number of sore-footed inclines that confront you to make you feel tired.”
When the narrator finally reaches his destination, he finds a building of the most peculiar dimensions, seemingly without depth. Inside this two dimensional barracks he encounters an odd looking fat man, Sergeant Pluck, who assumes that he has come about a missing bicycle. The officer expresses blatant disbelief that our hero is neither seeking a missing bicycle nor has he come by a similar mode of transport – a motorcycle, a tricycle, even. This simple truth will continue to be the most astounding point of fact for both Pluck and his fellow officer Policeman MacCruikseen, who busy themselves with montoring a bizarre and unbelievable assortment of realities. No bicycle! It is enough to make Pluck flustered and MacCruikseen apoplectic!
Over the few days that our narrator and his soul Joe spend in the company of the outlandish policemen (who include in their number a third officer, Policeman Fox, who apparently only comes by the station at night) he will witness a most unusual search for a missing bicycle and hear about the ravages of “Atomic Theory”, the principle which is causing the good people of the parish to absorb the atoms of their bicycles the more they utilize them, while the bicycles, in turn, become more human. To allow the trend to continue unchecked would be a travesty. Sergeant Pluck is so wary of his own bicycle that he keeps it, or rather “her”, locked in the lone jail cell.
With the discovery of another brutal murder during this time – our friend Mathers gets it again it seems – the narrator is named the guilty party, for no reason other than that he is handy. Never mind that he is not guilty, he is sentenced to hang for the crime. Our hero is devastated, even though he holds no guilt about the murder he actually did commit. Between his bouts of despair and dreams of escape, he endeavours to learn as much as he can about the mysteries behind the strange qualities of his surroundings including, as it happens, a visit to “eternity”, which is, he learns, just down the road. His curiosity vexes poor Joe:
“You don’t mean to say that you believe in this eternity business?
What choice have I? It would be foolish to doubt anything after yesterday.
That is all very well but I think I can claim to be an authority on the subject of eternity. There must be a limit to this gentleman’s monkey-tricks.
I am certain there isn’t.
Nonsense. you are being demoralized.
I will be hung tomorrow.
That is doubtful but if it has to be faced we will make a brave show.
Certainly. I will be there to the end. In the meantime let us make up our minds that eternity is not up a lane that is found by looking at the cracks in the ceiling of a country policeman’s bedroom.
Then what is up the lane?
I cannot say. If he said that eternity was up the lane and left it at that, I would not kick so hard. But when we are told that we are coming back from there in a lift – well I begin to think he is confusing night-clubs with heaven. A lift!”
The Third Policeman is a comedy of absurd proportions with its extrapolations on physics and metaphysics; a fountain of fantastic ideas. Here the surreal layers of reality within which the policemen conduct their business begin to sound strangely sensible (a curious “pancake” indeed as the officers themselves would have it) when played out against the narrator’s own personal frame of reference – his beloved de Selby – with his extremely idiosyncratic conceptions including his thoughts on the ideal house (either without a roof or without walls), his musings on the nature of darkness (due to the activity of volcanoes) and his conviction that life is an illusion. From beginning to end, the energy is high, the language is wildly infectious, the imagery is wonderfully inventive, and our narrator is so stubbornly selfish and greedy for all his earnest soul’s attempts to intervene that he never even imagines where he has, in truth, found himself.