on 17 February 2010
If someone put a gun to my head and asked me to name my favourite book evereverever, I'd scream, "The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien", and then I'd disarm the cowardly weasel with some nifty kung-fu moves. This is a Great book. It is probably one of the most intelligent, warped and pant-wettingly hilarious novels ever written. I cannot describe the plot without giving away its sublime surprises ... but it does contain some odd notions about bicycles, the king of the one-legged-men, and some mind-imploding cod-science. Flann O'Brien ... Gord bliss him for sharing his genius and giving us this wonderful thing.
on 19 May 2007
I've recently re-read this book after many years and on finishing it my thoughts now are exactly the same as they were the first time.
"Flann O'Brien is a twisted genius."
The language, the turn of phrase and the surreal aspects to the story (including the often hilarious footnotes) are unparalleled. This is a brilliant book and your life is much less complete without reading it.
on 14 August 2007
Naxos should be praised for releasing The Third Policeman as an audiobook and getting one of Ireland's finest actors, Jim Norton, to read it.
Fans of the book will find the reading opens up the story, and if you love the book this CD is essential. The atmosphere of the strange countryside the narrator travels in, the comic conversations, the obsession with bicycles - all these and more come alive.
Norton's reading is, at first shade brisk, but the listener quickly adapts to it. He adopts a confidential tone that matches O'Brien's prose style, which itself counterpoints the absurdist story.
All the voices are beautifully delineated, except the voice of Joe, which is a little too much like the narrator's. I feel embarrassed to level any criticism at this recording, but I might as well be honest about it.
That aside, it's a triumph.
Towards the end of his life O'Brien enjoyed a stage adaptation of The Dalkey Archive - and I'm sure he would have loved Norton's reading of The Third Policeman just as much.
on 16 March 2006
If you're coming to this book after the hype about it appearing on Lost, then the first thing you need to know is that it's one of the strangest books you're ever likely to read - and if it's not, I'll have some of what you're having. The Third Policeman is a remarkable book by any standards, even if (like me, hem hem) you fail to grasp the ending until you read the publisher's footnote afterwards. In fact the second half generally is not as hot as the first, and O'Brien seems to tread water most of the time after positively squirming with creative energy for the first hundred-odd pages. The book was written in 1940 but not published until 1967, after his death. It is narrated by a man who has literally no name, who has murdered someone for money and sets about recovering the stash. In doing so he encounters mad policemen obsessed with bicycles (including the eponymous third one), the atomic physics, and scale and size.
One of the finest long passages in the book, which had me drumming my heels in pure visceral pleasure, is when the policeman MacCruiskeen shows the narrator a little wooden chest he has made, "perfect in its proportions and without fault in its workmanship." It turns out that he has made thirty more, each smaller than the last and contained inside its predecessor, of which series even the thirteenth one was so small it "took me three years to make and it took me another year to believe that I had made it." What I particularly delighted in was the off-kilter and yet just-so dialogue between the policeman and our man:
"There now," said MacCruiskeen.
"It is nearly too nice," I said at last, "to talk about it."
"I spent two years manufacturing it when I was a lad," said MacCruiskeen, "and it still takes me to the fair."
"It is unmentionable," I said.
"Very nearly," said MacCruiskeen.
Also the book has a running background featuring the works of mythical Irish philosopher de Selby (shades of Vonnegut here), who believed among other things that night was merely an accumulation of dark particles in the air caused by pollution, and that sleep was a series of fits brought on by exposure to the particles. Much of the stuff about his notions of the world and indeed his several commentators and biographers is richly inventive and comic.
"His theory as I understand it is as follows.
"If a man stands before a mirror and sees in it his reflection, what he sees is not a true reproduction of himself but a picture of himself when he was a younger man. De Selby's explanation of this phenomenon is quite simple. Light, as he points out truly enough, has an ascertained and finite rate of travel. Hence before the reflection of any object in a mirror can be said to be accomplished, it is necessary that rays of light should first strike the object and subsequently impinge on the glass, to be thrown back again to the object - to the eyes of the man, for instance. There is therefore an appreciable and calculable interval of time between the throwing by a man of a glance at his own face in a mirror and the registration of the reflected image in his eye.
"So far, one may say, so good. Whether this idea is right or wrong, the amount of time involved is so negligible that few reasonable people would argue the point. But de Selby ever loath to leave well enough alone, insists on reflecting the first reflection in a further mirror and professing to detect minute changes in this second image. Ultimately he constructed the familiar arrangement of parallel mirrors, each reflecting diminishing images of an interposed object indefinitely. The interposed object in this case was de Selby's own face and this he claims to have studied backwards through an infinity of reflections by means of "a powerful glass." What he states to have seen through his glass is astonishing. He claims to have noticed a growing youthfulness in the reflections of his face according as they receded, the most distant of them - too tiny to be visible to the naked eye - being the face of a beardless boy of twelve, and, to use his own words, "a countenance of singular beauty and nobility." He did not succeed in pursuing the matter back to the cradle "owing to the curvature of the earth and the limitations of the telescope.""
So in some ways The Third Policeman is just a framework for O'Brien to hang lots of silly ideas on, and as novels go it's not distinguished by a strong urge to discover what happens next. But the writing is intricate and beautifully judged throughout, making it the rarity of a comic novel which requires full brow-furrowed attention to read. At times it feels like the best book you have ever read and at times it can be a bit of a drag. Which, as I said earlier, makes it remarkable by any standards. Whether it will help you solve the mysteries of a certain TV serial, I don't know ... as far as that goes, I'm Lost.
on 2 December 2003
I recommend that anyone with a sense of humour reads this book. I first read this at school aged 15 and loved it. I have just re read it and realised that I hadn't even picked up the half of its brilliance.
Flann O'Brien (real name Brian O'Nolan, who also wrote under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen) is a genius. His imagination, his turn of phrase, his sense of humour, each of these would be the envy of many an acclaimed author. To have them all displayed so expertly in one novel... as you can tell I loved it. I have spent the past few days consistently hurting with laughter. Proper belly-laughter. After finishing the book I have gone back to re-read sections.
The story begins normally enough on an Irish farm. At the beginning the lyrical prose is entertaining enough, but following a rather dark crime by the narrator the book takes off, with the narrator trying to retain his sanity as event after surreal event unravels before him.
Anyone who can create the eminent philosopher De Selby, whose thoughts pepper the book deserves any praise that comes their way. De Selby's theories include, "A row of houses is a row of necessary evils" (houses have lead to the softening of the human race); "night is in fact accumulations of black air", a sort of volcanic dust which obscures day & consequently sleep is in fact a series of fits and heart attacks; "journeys are an hallucination"; and who, in my favourite moment, following up his theory that when you look at a reflection of yourself in the mirror you see a younger version of yourself, sets up two mirrors opposite each other, producing an infinite series of reflections. De Selby then looks through a telescope and claims to have seen himself as a young boy.
on 16 April 2010
Whenever I try to explain what this book is about to anyone, I cannot do the task justice. It is in part a thriller, a murder mystery, a dark comedy and a philosophical journey. It is self conscious and absurdist, but speaks greater sense than any book that immediately springs to my mind.
There is no point in explaining the story, as it is a faint one, providing a vehicle for settings and wonderful moments, that seemingly stretch into infinity. Remember when you were a child and things seemed to have a less definitive form, and the world was more ready to confess it's dream-like nature? This book captures that. It is a book about form and formlessness and the nature of all things, as experienced through the agony of being a living thing.
The most significant feature this book has to offer is the way it is written. Flann O'Brien is compared to James Joyce not without good cause, amidst the swathes of irony, suggestion and paradox there is a distinctly Irish tone to a book that was way ahead of its time, and probably benefited from its initial refusal at the publishers desk.
on 17 March 2012
For the past 20 odd years my standard response to anybody asking me to recommend a book to them has always included mention of the Third Policemen. Recently I thought about this and realised that it was now time to re-read, a decision also partly motivated by witnessing a brilliant performance by the Blue Raincoat Theatre Company of its version.
It still remains, in my opinion, a triumph of the comedic genre and, if anything, advancing age enhances your enjoyment: clever, funny as fekk (as Father Jack would say), weird, surreal, scary, innovative and thought provoking, all in equal measure. The author leads you into a world where the ridiculous seems normal and the mundane totally unexpected. But you don't go along kicking and screaming: instead it does not take long before you are chasing the author along that road.
I have read just about everything written by Brian/Myles/Flann, his Irish Times columns as well as the other books. The Third Policeman is my favourite of them all, although I concede that others may have superior literary merit (At Swim Two Birds is justifiably seen as a classic). Read this, then jump deeper into his world: try the Dalkey Archive for an imcomporable mix of theology, poetry, invention and, of course, comedic genius.
Everybody should at least start this book: those who get to the end will join its legions of devotees and be eternally grateful for the experience.
I found a lot of The Third Policeman esoteric,high falutin nonsense,subject to footnotes and theories of one De Selby,a philosopher and scientist,of whom the nameless narrator is an acolyte.Murder is an intimate theme, surrealistic conversation and conceptions of reality that lead the characters,John Divney,narrator,Joe,Old Mathers,the three policemen,Martin Finnucane,a right merry dance.Science is married to insanity in a pedantic, pedagogical exercise that destroys the laws of physics,theknown laws of the universe,creating altered states of reality,the soul and the afterlife,marrying Dosteyevsky and Alice in Wonderland. We are talking about hell and bicycles like you've never seen them before.In a strange way it is akin to treating the whole of reality and human life on earth as if it is subject to scientific theories or as treating the spiritual life as an experimental phenomenon to be tried and tested or repeated endlessly to prove an ultimate hypothesis.I suspect there was a reason that Brian O'Nolan didn't publish it in his lifetime(although he couldn't get itpublished):his fine Catholic conscience. Using a mangle of time with light at one end and sound at the other,the screams of Divney,the black box,omnium("is the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the root of the kernel of everything"),can we wonder why? Was it the civil servant more civil than the devil?
I grew exasperated and impatient with its never-ending soliloquies of nonsense and its fine non sequitors,what policemen did with bicycles or carved boxes,whether a man is alive or dead or resurrected for the sake of the story.There were moments of comedy like when bicycles become like people or people become like bicycles, but it was overall not funny.Yet it was a marvellous work of imaginative fantasy.The characters didn't come alive for me,they were too much alchemical conceptions in the mind of their author.The murder is over too soon and the perpetrator revealed at the story's start.The narrator's guilt provides his only reality,the story immersed in a conception of hell which is at times macabre,frightening and grim.We are reading a novel of the dead,fixed and immovable,not celebrating characters who were ever alive.Flan O'Brien is like Banquo's ghost haunting the modernists Joyce and Beckett with his post-modernist musings.The bits that moved me most were when O'Brien is writing about nature,the landscape,the elements,the light in a way that recalled Knut Hamsun at his peak,showing what an accomplished,beautiful writer he was.
'The Third Policeman' was Flann O'Brien's second novel, written in 1939-40 but rejected for publication by an unsympathetic publisher. It was published in 1967, the year after O'Brien's death.
The novel offers the story of a deeply unsympathetic and unworldly man - an enthusiast of the idiot savant philosopher De Selby - who becomes embroiled in a scheme to kill a local worthy for the contents of a mysterious black box. This ill-gotten fortune will, he hopes, permit him to publish a learned commentary on De Selby's works.
It's a difficult book to discuss beyond this point: partly because the details and surprises of what follows are essential to O'Brien's purpose; partly because as a whole the book closely resembles so little else. In spirit, it belongs to the interwar years. Essentially a tragedy, haunted by a gathering foreboding, it is leavened by a manic absurd humour that is as much unsettling as amusing, and so one thinks of Céline and Waugh. There are echoes of older writers, particularly other idiosyncratic souls: Thomas Love Peacock, Sterne, even Voltaire in his fabulator's guise.
On the other hand, one can understand why O'Brien was so popular with younger readers in the 'Sixties and 'Seventies: he looks forward to the similarly ambivalent tragicomedy of the American black humorists, and like them mixes realism with fabulism. Given the period, it's reasonable to suggest that 'The Third Policeman' is also a kind of native Irish surrealism, with the same tendency as its European counterparts to mix the frightening, the erotic and the absurd. There are many anticipations of the procedures of later postmodernism; even David Foster Wallace might have learned something from O'Brien's footnotes. Perhaps the closest comparison is with Beckett's 'Murphy'. It's a measure of O'Brien's achievement here that he isn't diminished by the comparison.
Some readers may find the narrative's violent and - only apparently - unmotivated swings between scenes of naturalistic violence, oneiric fantasy, shaggy-dog humour, stage-Irishry and cod-academic pedantry exasperating. It's worth persisting. As the shape of the whole emerges, it becomes clear that this is rather more than just a funny book by a 'comic writer'. In spite of the greater success of his début novel, 'At Swim-Two-Birds', it's arguable that O'Brien never wrote anything better than this.
on 11 August 2010
O'Brien's maverick humour finds its perfect outlet in the strange, terrifying, and ultimately frustrating wonderland that his unnamed narrator spends most of the book blundering about in. The book starts like most of O'Brien's - with a sly wit and a liberal dose of self-knowing Oirishy - but rapidly becomes something much more peculiar, and much darker. Who are the two idiot policeman charged with keeping the narrator in custody? What is omnium, and why is it important? And, most pressing of all, who is the Third Policeman, and how is he linked to the narrator's life? Gratifyingly, the answers to all these questions are in the book's final chapters, where the novel's apparent whimsy inexorably resolves into something much, much darker.
I've never seen Lost, so I can't say whether it's helpful in coming to a greater understanding of that or not. But if you want to be amused, entertained, hoodwinked, terrified, and ultimately dazzled by the creativity of one of Ireland's finest comic writers, this is the book for you.