42 Novels: The Third Policeman, part 1

The Third Policeman” by Flann O’Brien is my first novel in the “Douglas Adams Memorial 42 Novels” project, in which I work through my library of interesting works for the first time. Starting with a list of 42 books, I went to the randomizer function at random.org, which spat up the number for this novel.

My copy is from the Everyman’s Library series, “Flann O’Brien: The Complete Novels,” which I received for review.

Flann O’Brien was in real life Brian O’Nolan (1911-1966). He worked in Ireland’s civil service, so to protect his reputation nearly everything he wrote, novels, letters to the editor, newspaper columns, were screened behind a pseudonym. His talent for writing letters to the editor of the Irish Times (which, under a number of different names, managed to fuel an entertaining literary feud among a number of authors) led to an offer to write a weekly column on Irish subjects under the name “Myles na gCopaleen.” It ran for nearly a quarter-decade.

Under the name Flann O’Brien, he wrote a number of novels. His first, “At Swim-Two-Birds,” considered one of his best, uses a twisting narrative and multiple points of view to tell the story, well, let’s let Keith Donohue take over this bit (from the Everyman’s Library introduction):

Holed up in his uncle’s Dublin home for the academic year, an unnamed narrator intermittently works on a mock-heroic novel about a man named Orlick Trellis who is, in turn, writing a novel, in which he freely borrows and steals his characters from Irish mythology and folklore, cowboy novels, and whole cloth invention based on the plain people of Ireland,who become strangely more alive when Trellis is asleep. These characters, frustrated by Trellis’s authority, set off on a quest to find his son — the product of his union with one of his own characters — whom they commission to write a novel designed to capture, torture, and try Trellis and thus win their freedom.

Got it? O’Brien is Joyce, only more Irish.

“The Third Policeman” has a curious publishing history perfectly in tune for such a curious book. It was written in 1940 when O’Nolan was 29. It was rejected by his publisher, put in a drawer, only to appear in print in 1967 the year after he died. It was apparently well-received — it’s mentioned, along with its author, in the Oxford Companion to English Literature — but it received a boost a few years back when it appeared in the hands of one of the characters on the TV series “Lost.” Many people, I’m sure, bought the novel on sight, only to be as confused by the story as they must have been by the TV series (which may have been the point.)

The book opens with a quote from someone named De Selby:

“Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusionary approach of the supreme hallucinations known as death.”

In the first two chapters, we meet an unnamed narrator. Briefly, he recounts his life: dead parents, sent to school, returns farm and pub run by John Divney, about which we know nothing except that he was in charge. We also learn (in the first paragraph, so no spoilers here) that they murder “old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw with my spade,” and by the end of the first chapter, we learn how and why.

In the meantime, O’Brien plays with the twisting narrative. The narrator (whose name we never learn) has a great love of De Selby, a fictional philosopher known for writing works such as “Golden Hours” and “Country Album” (at least a thousand pages long!). The narrator is so taken with him that he learns French and German in order to read the commentaries in that language.

By chapter three, however, the narrator has clearly run off his mental rails. While attempting to recover the murdered man’s treasure at his home, he encounters him sitting in his chair in his home. In a long conversation, vaguely hallucinatory, Narrator learns that wind has colors, that the color of the wind at birth determines how long you live, and that every year a policeman comes by to deliver a new gown, immeasurably darker than the previous year’s, and that you wear them all until you die.

“Who are these policeman?” I asked.

“There is Sergeant Pluck and another man called MacCruiskeen and there is a third man called Fox that disappeared twenty-five years ago and was never heard of after. The first two are down in the barracks and so far as I know they have been there for hundreds of years.”

Emboldened, the narrator decides to visit the stationhouse and learn more.

Reactions so far: Mild confusion. Mild irritation. Some beautiful prose. A lot of patience to see where this novel’s going. There’s a blurb on the back cover from NPR’s Charles Baxter, who calls “The Third Policeman” “the funniest book ever written,” which inspires great pity for him, since I can name a dozen writers far funnier than Flann O’Brien, but it’s early days yet.

More to come …