The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien: an expert investigation

Bestselling author Michael Foley celebrates a comic, Kafkaesque masterpiece and explores what makes it great. But why was it cannibalised for a vastly inferior book? And did Flann predict string theory?

Everything about The Third Policeman is mysterious, beginning with its belated publication. Flann O’Brien wrote it in 1939, immediately after At Swim-Two-Birds, but when it was rejected by several publishers put the manuscript in a drawer and told everyone it had been lost. Then, when At Swim was reissued in 1960 to universal acclaim, instead of following up with his masterpiece, O’Brien cannabalised it for a vastly inferior book, The Dalkey Archive. Why? In the words of the first policeman, Sergeant Pluck, “That is a great curiosity, a very difficult piece of puzzledom, a snorter”.

Then there is the question of what makes the book a masterpiece worthy of comparison with Kafka. This is another hard conundrum, a very nearly insoluble pancake. The novel appears to be mere whimsy about comical Irish policemen and bicycles – but it is eerily compelling in some profound way. Part of the answer may be that it was influenced by Kafka or drew on the same sources, or both. According to his biographer, O’Brien admired Kafka’s work, though, in his usual perverse and secretive way, he never acknowledged this and was often dismissive of Kafka in his newspaper column, (probably due to distaste for Kafka’s popularity with pretentious intellectuals).

Many of Kafka’s fictions are quest sagas based on the oldest narrative structure in literature (going back to the first work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1000 BCE). In all these sagas the quest hero leaves his familiar surroundings to go in search of a magical object in an unknown world full of marvels and monsters, and eventually finds and brings back the grail, which confers special powers and meaning and transforms his world. In Kafka’s modern version the hero is unheroic, the monsters are big, bluff, hearty oafs in positions of authority and the objective of the quest is never achieved. In other words, the absurdity of the human condition is that the sensitive few are obliged to search for meaning when in fact there is no meaning – and this futile search will be constantly thwarted by insensitive brutes.

The Third Policeman works similar variations on the mythical structure. The unnamed quest hero and narrator is a scholar who, to fund publication of a scholarly work, robs and murders a man and is pitched into a nightmarish world where, in pursuit of a black box containing four ounces of a mysterious, all-powerful substance called omnium, he is subjected to miracles and wonders and threatened with execution by “horrible and monstrous” policemen, “heavy-fleshed and gross in body”. Needless to say, he never finds the black box but, in O’Brien’s unique twist, is doomed to repeat the quest in exactly the same way forever.

As with Kafka, what gives the fable its power is a combination of a religio-comic vision that sees seeking as spiritually essential but laughably futile and a fastidious style that enhances the comedy by deadpan delivery, the craziness by matter-of-fact logic and both by ridiculously prosaic detail (especially about bicycles). In O’Brien’s case the vision is a Manichean view of the world as the realm of evil in which, as he himself put it later, the “encounter between God and the rebel Lucifer” has “gone the other way”. As a consequence, all theories are crackpot, all knowledge is useless and the only meaning is that life is a hell of endless repetition. So the narrator encounters a succession of peculiar characters who offer consistently negative wisdom, including the conclusion that “No is a better word than Yes” and advice to desist not just from seeking truth, but from most forms of action because “the majority of them are definitely bad and are pretty considerable sins as sins go”. In fact life itself “is a great mistake and a thing better done without, like bed-jars and foreign bacon”.

But theorising is the worst error. The narrator has committed murder to fund a work of exegesis on De Selby, a mad scientist whose theories and commentators are equally absurd (and who, in The Dalkey Archive, plans to destroy the world). Of all forms of theorising, science is the most grievous heresy because its belief in establishing ultimate truth displays the pride of Lucifer. As O’Brien said of theoretical physics in one of his serious newspaper columns, “Insofar as it purports to be concerned with investigating the causation of life according to rational criteria, it is sinful”.

To illustrate the futility of scientific theorising, O’Brien uses a recurrent theme of infinite regression. One of the characters has eyes with a pinpoint behind which are eyes with another pinpoint and so on to infinity; the narrator wonders if his soul is “a body with another body inside it in turn, thousands of such bodies within each other like the skins of an onion, receding to some unimaginable ultimum”; De Selby studies in a series of parallel mirrors infinite reflections of his face going back to early youth; and Policeman MacCruiskeen has constructed a series of nested chests with the last few so small that they are no longer visible to the naked eye. So speculation and experiment are mad activities that literally disappear into nothingness. As MacCruiskeen promises, the only outcome is that “You will hurt your box with the excruciation of it”.

In fact physics since 1939 has been exactly like this, its pursuit of the nature of matter and reality a vertiginous descent into a mystifying void. The perfect image of modern physics is the instrument Pluck offers the narrator – a magnifying glass that magnifies to invisibility. Despite his view of physics as sinful, O’Brien would surely have been delighted by the discovery of particles within particles within particles, all the way down to unimaginable weirdness, and the revelation that the known universe is merely a tiny speck in something unimaginably vast. He even seems to have predicted string theory and parallel universes, “New and unimaginable dimensions will supersede the present order”.

The style of the book is equally strange, a unique combination of pedantic exactitude and mythopoeic fable language. The pedantry derives from O’Brien’s technique in At Swim of writing English as though it were a dead language, the literary equivalent of a deadpan expression, which sets up a comical contrast with the demotic of the characters. And the fable language is a result of writing English as though it is translation from Irish, which gives it a timeless ancient-culture resonance and supports the mythical quest structure.

All these elements come together in the great central scene where the policemen take the narrator to eternity, which is up a country lane and deep underground, accessible only by lift, a labyrinth of metal chambers and passageways punctuated by doors like those of ovens or safe-deposit boxes, with many wires and pipes overhead and on the walls many clocks, gauges, levers and wheels. When the narrator sarcastically suggests that cycling would be the only way to get round this place, Sergeant Pluck smiles, as though at a child, and opens one of the oven doors to reveal a brand-new bicycle with a three-speed gear. This causes the narrator to ponder “the commercial possibilities of eternity” and he asks for gold bars, which the sergeant obligingly produces at once. Now the narrator’s brain is “working coldly and quickly”. He orders 50 cubes of gold, a bottle of whiskey, precious stones to the value of £200,000, some bananas, a fountain pen and writing materials and a serge suit of blue with silk linings. When these items have been delivered the narrator remembers further requirements and orders underwear, shoes, banknotes and a box of matches. What he forgets to request is a receptacle for all this but the considerate Sergeant produces on his behalf a hogskin bag worth at least 50 guineas. Then, just as he is about to make off with the full bag, the narrator has another cunning thought and orders a weapon capable of exterminating any man or any million men but small enough to carry comfortably in a pocket. (For a scholar the narrator is surprisingly vicious – he carries out the original murder with a spade, smashes the victim’s skull “like an empty eggshell” and does not cease striking until he is “tired”).

Finally they make their way back to the lift – but the Sergeant prevents the narrator from entering with a sudden high-pitched scream of warning. It seems that if you weigh more going out than coming in, the lift will “extirpate you unconditionally”. The narrator must abandon his precious bag – and, after a few stunned moments, reacts: “A large emotion came swelling against my throat and filling my mind with great sorrow and a sadness more remote and desolate than a great strand at evening with the sea far away at its distant turn. Looking down with a bent head at my broken shoes, I saw them swim and dissolve in big tears that came bursting on my eyes. I turned to the wall and gave loud choking sobs and broke down completely and cried loudly like a baby.” In the lift MacCruiskeen attempts to ease this anguish by offering a bag of creams but, when the narrator tries to take a sweet, three or four come out together, compacted into a sticky mass by the heat of the policeman’s pocket. The Sergeant, offered one in turn, refuses on the grounds that it would put him in bed “for a full fortnight roaring out profanity from terrible stoons of indigestion and heartburn”, and then goes into a lyrical rhapsody on the merits of Carnival Assorted. “Now there is a sweet for you”.

A good comic writer might have come up with the pitifully absurd mixture of precious and worthless items ordered and the cunning greed of demanding a weapon that will not just protect but exterminate. But what makes the scene great is the weeping in the lift. At this point the language, hitherto scrupulously sober, concise and flat, suddenly becomes expansive and lyrical (that “great strand at evening with the sea far away”) so that we are made to feel personally the anguish, realising that we are equally desirous, deluded and absurd. We laugh too of course – but the laughter is complex and troubling. This is the comedy not of superiority but of empathy.

The scene concludes with two touches of genius – MacCruiskeen’s offer of sweets that turn out to be stuck together and Pluck’s views on sweets in general. Human consolation is as laughable as human anguish and when our hearts have been broken and we weep bitter tears of desolation, some insensitive oaf will be babbling on, oblivious, about Carnival Assorted.

The narrator never finds the black box or understands anything of his mysterious circumstances. Seeking material gain is as foolish as seeking knowledge. Yet although the world is the realm of evil and all pursuits are futile, the physical world itself remains surpassingly beautiful. Despite his constant disappointments, confusions and terrors, the narrator is intoxicated afresh every morning. “Whichever day it was, it was a gentle day – mild, magical and innocent with great sailings of white cloud serene and impregnable in the high sky, moving along like kingly swans on quiet water. The sun was in the neighbourhood also, distributing his enchantment unobtrusively, colouring the sides of things that were unalive and livening the hearts of living things.”

And despite his stupidity, viciousness and greed, he enjoys a brief but authentic quest hero epiphany on the gallows.

“Strange enlightenments are vouchsafed,” I murmured, “to those who seek the higher places.”

The illustration to this article is by Irish artist James Kenny.

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