The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien

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“Atomics is a very intricate theorem and can be worked out with algebra but you would want to take it by degrees because you might spend the whole night proving a bit of it with rulers and cosines and similar other instruments and then at the wind-up not believe what you had proved at all. If that happened you would have to go back over it till you got a place where you could believe your own facts and figures as delineated from Hall and Knight’s Algebra and then go on again from that particular place till you had the whole thing properly believed and not have bits of it half-believed or a doubt in your head hurting you like when you lose the stud of your shirt in bed.”

“Very true,” I said.

“Consequently and consequentially,” he continued, “you can safely infer that you are made of atoms yourself and so is your fob pocket and the tail of your shirt and the instrument you use for taking the leavings out of the crook of your hollow tooth. Do you happen to know what takes place when you strike a bar of iron with a good coal hammer or with a blunt instrument?”


“When the wallop falls, the atoms are bashed away down to the bottom of the bar and compressed and crowded there like eggs under a good clucker. After a while in the course of time they swim around and get back at last to where they were. But if you keep hitting the bar long enough and hard enough they do not get a chance to do this and what happens?”

“That is a hard question.”

“Ask a blacksmith for the true answer and he will tell you that the bar will dissipate itself away by degrees if you persevere with the hard wallops. Some of the atoms of the bar will go into the hammer and the other half into the table or the stone or the particular article that is underneath the bottom of the bar.”

“That is well-known,” I agreed.

“The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.”

I let go a gasp of astonishment that made a sound in the air like a bad puncture.

“And you would be flabbergasted at the number of bicycles that are half-human almost half-man, half-partaking of humanity.”

Editor’s Comments

The works of Flann O’Brien are not neglected at all–at least in Ireland. All of his books can be found on the shelves of any major Dublin bookstore, as can a number of compilations and critical volumes. Flann was a pen-name of Brian O’Nolan; under another, Myles na Gopaleen, he was for years a popular comic columnist for The Irish Times. A drinker himself and a resident of Dublin all his adult life, O’Nolan/O’Brien would likely win a popularity contest over that expat James Joyce any day of the week.

Outside of Ireland, however, his works surface intermittently and with few witnesses, rather like the Loch Ness Monster. Some of it is understandable. His best-regarded novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, is perhaps too full of talk and Guinness not to seem a bit like a wound-up Irish drunk to more Puritanical minds.

There’s no good excuse for The Third Policeman not being a fixed feature of undergraduate courses on the modern English novel. It’s got plenty enough symbolism and message to make it teachable, and you can’t argue that going to Hell isn’t a serious enough subject for the book to hold its own with any other English novel since the 1920s.

What’s more, it’s also a hell (no pun intended) of a lot of fun. First off, you have the talk, which starts with the narrator’s own recounting of his tale. As Myles na Gopaleen, O’Nolan/O’Brien wrote his column in English, Irish, Latin, and sometimes a mixture of all three or a new language of his own resembling none. He would offer, as a didactic exercise, elucidations on words from the Gaelic:

Cur, g. curtha and cuirthe, m.
Act of putting, sending, sowing, raining discussing, burying, vomiting, hammering into the ground, throwing through the air, rejecting, shooting, the setting or clamp in a rick of turf, selling,addressing, the crown of cast iron buttons which have been made bright by contact with cliff faces, the stench of congealing badgers suet, the luminence of glue-lice, a noise made in a house by an unauthorised person, a heron’s boil, a leprachauns denture, a sheep biscuit, the act of inflating hare’s offal with a bicycle pump….

Another recurring feature was the “Catechism of Cliche,” which poked fun at the language of the very newspaper that printed him:

“What can one do with fierce resistance, especially in Russia ?”
“Offer it.”
” But if one puts fierce resistance, in what direction does one put it ?”

” Up.”

This was a writer who could go on a word bender for days longer than just about any other word drunk except Joyce. His newspaper columnist side could never let himself stray too far away from the point of keeping the reader entertained. So while we witness a brutal murder and gradually realize, along with the narrator, that what makes Hell Hell is that there is, in the words of Satre’s play, no exit, there are also plenty of superbly odd and funny moments. O’Brien/O’Nolan admitted it himself in a letter to William Saroyan: “When you are writing about the world of the dead–and the damned–where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.”

Many of these come in the form of comments on the subject of one or another theory of a nineteenth century scientist (or sorts) named de Selby. Night, for example, he conceived of as “an accretion of ‘black air'”–i.e., volcanic ash. The noise of a hammer striking an object came from the bursting of “atmosphere balls” (air being composed of millions of such balls). There are too many choice de Selby theories not to quote at least one:

Human existence de Selby has defined a “a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief,” a conception which he is thought to have arrived at from examining some old cinematograph films which belonged probably to his nephew. From this premise he discounts the reality or truth of any progression or serialism in life, denies that time can pass as such in the accepted sense and attributes to hallucinations the commonly experienced sensation of progression as, for instance, in journeying from one place to another or even “living.” If one is resting at A, he explains, and desires to rest in a distant place B, one can only do so by resting for infinitely brief intervals in innumerable intermediate places….

… Whatever about the soundness of de Selby’s theories, there is ample evidence that they were honestly held and that several attempts were made to put them into practice. During his stay in England, he happened at one time to be living in Bath and found it necessary to go from there to Folkestone on pressing business. His method of doing so was far from conventional. Instead of going to the railway station and inquiring about trains, he shut himself up in a room in his lodgings with a supply of picture postcards of the areas which would be traverse on such a journey, together with an elaborate arrangement of clocks and barometric instruments and a device for regulating the gaslight in conformity with the changing light of the outside day. What happened in the room or how precisely the clocks and other machines were manipulated will never be known. It seems that he emerged after a lapse of seven hours convinced that he was in Folkestone and possibly that he had evolved a formula for travellers which would be extremely distasteful to railway and shipping companies.

There is more than sublime silliness going on here, though. Note that almost parenthetical “or even ‘living’.” This is precisely what the narrator, in effect discovers to be his situation. Although he has a succession of experiences, he finds in the end that his sense of being alive is genuinely only a hallucination. Hell has no exit, which means he is doomed to keep walking around in circles, repeating the same bizarre experiences, but each time in some subtly different way. The narrator and Divney meet again right at the end and find themselves walking into a police station. The same enormous policeman greets them and with the last line of the book brings them around for another lap:

“Is it about a bicycle?” he asked.


Howard Moss, The New Yorker, 28 September 1968

Starting out as a realistic novel, The Third Policeman rapidly changes into a book of magical deeds and transformations. Divney and the narrator kil a rich old man, Phillip Mathers, in order to get their hands on a black box containing three thousand pounds. The narrator is finishing off Mathers with a spade when Divney disappears, taking the black box with him; he returns, empty-handed, a few moments later. He eludes the narrator’s questions about its whereabouts for months, then finally leads him to Mathers’ house, where the box has been hidden under the floorboards. Divney remains outside, and the narrator enters the house, but when he reaches in under the floorboards to get the box it slips out of his hands. (We learn later that Divney has sustituted explosives for the pounds.) Immediately, the narrator becomes aware of Mathers’ presence in the room–a ghost, the narrator thinks, though, unknown to him and the reader, he is now a ghost himself….

Complicity in Mathers’ murder leads the narrator to a kind of Hell dominated by a surrealistic police barracks–one-dimensional from one point of view, three-dimensional from another–the governing center of a countryside populated by people who are in part bicycles. An exchange of atoms between a cyclist and his machine produces various percentages of man-bike or bike-man, and it is one of the chief tasks of the policemen to keep track of the percentages from moment to moment….

The Third Policeman is a comic but sinister invention: on the one hand, a regional farce in which a criminal struggles with an entrenched rural bureaucracy, and, on the other, a mysterious allegory of universal pitfalls. It is a metaphysical comedy in which tricky camerawork and fleet ballet maneuvers of style bear the stamp of a technical master who has an occasional Irish weakness for blarney. Wit sometimes descends into whimsey. Completely original, it paradoxically brings to mind, as so many less original works do not, the world and tone of other writers, and of Joyce and Finnegans Wakes in particular. (A one-legged man who first tries to murder the narrator and then befriends him is named Finnucane.) Though O’Brien’s book makes no claim to the grandeur and sweep of Joyce’s epic, its hero is dead, Joyce’s asleep. Both books are circular in construction, slyly erudite in a similar fashion, and depend for a good deal of their force and comedy on linguistic invention. The outsize, cardboard caricatures of the three policemen suggest Kafka’s “assistants” in managing simultaneously to appear both innocent and forbidding, and their cryptic dialogue owes more than a little to Alice in Wonderland.

O’Brien belongs to a school of fiction more interested in archetype than in character and in metamorphosis than in action. His puppetlike figures do not suffer as individuals in any ordinary sense; they suffer for everyone in some general amusement park of the soul while confronting their unexpected fates. In O’Brien’s Hell, guilt is a moral implication, not a matter of psychological anguish, and intimidation is the major terror, not humiliation. O’Brien mines and transforms; he takes the weather of other writers and creates a climate of his own. The Third Policeman, written in Ireland in 1940 and published here a year after the author’s death, is both sui generis and the product of a literary convention. And for no reason one can definitely point to, it is as strangely emotionally affecting as it is funny.

Charles Foran in Lost Classics

I believe it is a novel charged with the same weird energy as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Both deal with the aftermath of a bomb. In Pynchon, the consequence is social derangement; all changed utterly by humanity having bitten into the apple of mass destruction. In The Third Policeman, the consequence is a narrator transported from his own familiar but deeply strange world into a parallel one that is strange but deeply familiar. O’Brien invest slapstick and lowbrow comedy–a blowhard cop, gags with bicycles and dogs–with overtones of menace. Tall tales turn swiftly dark; the “crack,” as the Irish call good banter, starts to crack up. Where we are is Ireland, the book infers–pace Marlowe’s Faustus on hell–and must ever be.

The Third Policeman is about how our subconscious propels us where our conscious selves wisely refuse to go. It is definitely a parable. It definitely heads down a narrow and dark thematic road. But the novel is also a first draft by an author who shows signs of being disconcerted, perhaps even scared, by what he is creating. (The use of footnotes, supposedly to mock academic pomposity, is a clear hedge.) When I read the book as a graduate student in Dublin I thought it an amazing piece of writing. Few agreed with me. When I did my thesis on the novel, I kept finding more and more there: layers and fears, dares and cop-outs. I couldn’t believe so few scholars took the work seriously. In the end, I doubt I convinced many to reconsider.

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The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien
London: Macgibbon & Kee, 1967

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