Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman is - at least currently - likely the most recognized of the Irish humorist's novels. It holds a more glamorous reputation than that of the previously reviewed Dalkey Archive and is less achingly literary and somewhat more sensible than his acclaimed debut, At Swim-Two-Birds. What part of that reputation comes from its association with the TV show Lost, as I said before, is probably that "both works are probably equally as difficult to follow".
The Third Policeman is a dark fantasy, a comic tale that delves into murder, death and metaphysics, but never outright farce. The book is set in the provincial Irish countryside, as opposed to the urban and suburban (respectively) Dublin settings of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Dalkey Archive. Hence the focus of the story is on the isolated, cocooned inhabitants of a very strange police station, to which the narrator and main protagonist turns to for assistance at the novel's start.
These policeman (of which there are three) harbour some strange habits, obsessions and, as is ultimately revealed, arcane knowledge. The first, the Sergeant Pluck, is essentially the base for Sergeant Fottrell of The Dalkey Archive, with his obsession with bicycles and their atomic dangers. The second, young Policeman MacCruiskeen, has as a hobby the production of an infinitely regressing series of wooden chests, each fitting inside the one before. The third, Policeman Fox, is the most mysterious, leading a nocturnal and otherwise invisible existence, and not appearing until the very end of the novel. Other characters include John Divney, the narrator's partner- and rival-in-crime of the opening chapters, Mathers, the dead or not-quite-dead miser, Joe, the narrator's soul; a group of one-legged men, said to be allegorical to the IRA; and, in another overlap with The Dalkey Archive, the mad scientist De Selby - who appears in a series of lengthy footnotes which themselves make up a kind of book-within-a-book.
The Dalkey Archive begins autobiographically, in the second paragraph - the first actually begins "Not everybody knows how I killed old Philip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with a spade" - briefly charting the way in which the situation that the narrator finds himself in emerged: the death of his parents; his living in a strange kind of bondage with Divney, the caretaker of the family farm and, later, public house; and their plan to steal the old miser, Mather's, money. Following the apparent murder of Mathers, and some lengthy periods of distrust, the narrator is sent to the old miser's house to retrieve the stashed metal box containing the object of the theft. However, in the tradition of fantastical stories everywhere, as well as in classic science fiction tales of weirdness, 'something happened':
"I cannot hope to describe what it was but it had frightened me very much long before I had understood it even slightly. It was some change which came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable. It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation. The fingers of my right hand, thrust into the opening in the floor, had closed mechanically, found nothing at all and came up again empty. The box was gone!"
From that point on, The Third Policeman descends into surreality and bizarre discoveries. The Harper Perennial blurb describes the novel as "distinguished by endless comic invention and its delicate balancing of logic and fantasy", delivered, it must be said, in the author's inimitable but quintessentially (and therefore, imitating) Irish style. Part of the book's appeal lies - and this is not exactly an original observation, but a memory of something I read elsewhere as well - in its combination of the parochial (the rural setting and the microscopic dramas of the police house) and the universal (the metaphysical and existential discoveries, trappings and just plain absurdities of the plot). While The Dalkey Archive was played as a detective farce, investigating the peculiar yet personal experiments of the inscrutable De Selby, The Third Policeman contains a much more entirely warped and twisted world:
"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 about 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 like it would not deceive a child. That was not in itself sufficient to surprise me because I had seen pictures and notices by the roadside before. What bewildered me was the sure knowledge deeply-rooted in my mind, that there were people inside it. I had no doubt at all that it was the barracks of the policeman. I had never seen anything 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…
I kept on walking, but walked more slowly. As I approached, the house seemed to change its appearance. At first, it did nothing to reconcile itself with the shape of an ordinary house but it became uncertain in outline like a thing glimpsed under ruffled water. Then it became clear again and I saw that it began to have some back to it, some small space for rooms behind the frontage. I gathered this from the fact that I seemed to see the front and the back of the ‘building’ simultaneously from my position approaching what should have been the side. As there was no side that I could see I thought the house must be triangular with its apex pointing towards me but when I was only fifteen yards away I saw a small window apparently facing me and I knew from that that there must be some side to it. then I found myself almost in the shadow of the structure, dry-throated and timorous from wonder and anxiety. It seemed ordinary enough at close quarters except that it was very white and still. It was momentous and frightening: the whole morning and the whole world seemed to have no purpose at all save to frame it and give it some magnitude and position so that I could find it with my simple senses and pretend to myself that I understood it. A constabulary crest above the door told me it was a police station. I had never seen a police station like it."
In this bizarre universe, the narrator's journey takes on an air of inexplicability and unknowableness that marks it out as less of a comic fantasy than a science fiction novel. The wit is ever-present of course, but nonetheless often heavily overlaid with a profoundly odd sense of fear and trepidation. The Third Policeman is thus a novel of combination, "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 about unending guilt".
Like Lost, the piece of modern culture that this novel is so tantalisingly connected to, The Third Policeman is a cryptic tale, but it is not one entirely without resolution or exposition. From the first extract above, and from some adjectives I could easily have used in describing the book, a good deal of the plot's secret may be guessed. Regardless of the actual nature of the plot or the narrator's journey, however, The Third Policeman remains a work of surreal comedy and bizarre wit. A useful appendix to my edition details some of the book's history, and proves that some of the book's truth is stranger than its fiction:
'A Curious Tale'
A publisher’s note at the end of The Third Policeman displays a letter, written in 1940 by O’Brien to the American author William Saroyan, in which he explains some of its eccentricities.
By the time they reach this letter, readers will already have marvelled at the book’s many themes: man’s search for God, for eternal youth, for unimaginable power and treasures, and his relationship with nature, with the soul, with the myriad mysteries of the universe and, crucially, with the bicycle.
A beguiling and curious combination of many books and styles – part Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, part Gulliver’s Travels, part Seventh Voyage of Sinbad - The Third Policeman drifts from bizarre fantasy to sheer nonsense and back again, propelled by frequent drafts of dry wit. It is, in the immortal words of one of the policeman, ‘nearly an insoluble pancake’.
Almost as strange as the novel’s plot is its history. It was written after the publication of O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, but was rejected by his publishers who wrote: ‘We realize the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this novel he is more so.’ He had been thinking about adapting it for the stage, probably influenced by Saroyan’s success as a playwright, but abandoned the idea after this blow.
Nevertheless, he did try his luck abroad, sending the manuscript to literary agents in America through a contact of Saroyan’s, with the perhaps more apposite title of Hell Goes Round and Round. However, further enquiries revealed that they had mislaid it. Perhaps enraged, or inspired, by this carelessness, he abandoned all attempts to place it with anyone and began telling friends that he had mislaid the manuscript, even inventing different fates for it. These ranged from the simple mistake of leaving it on a tramcar or showing it to someone at the Dolphin Hotel and then leaving without it, to the inspired notion that he had taken it on a trip to Donegal by car only for the pages to have somehow been blown out of the boot. To an actor friend who knew a film director and who felt it might be adapted into a script he offered the rather undramatic yarn of having left it on a train. Only his friend Donal McDonagh knew the truth and, after O’Brien had asked him to look at the novel again to see what was wrong with it, McDonagh replied ‘nothing’. Despite this assurance, it lay unread for twenty-six years.
Yet various chunks of The Third Policeman did appear in O’Brien’s final novel, The Dalkey Archive. Largely concerned with bicycles and policeman, some of the material has been lifted, word for word, from the original source. And a short story published under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen, called ‘Two in One’, also borrowed from the unpublished novel. But when O’Brien’s friend and biographer Anthony Cronin suggested that the story should be published under the byline Flann O’Brien, the latter replied ominously, ‘I don’t know that fellow any more.’