6) The Third Policeman
, by Flann O'Brien
One of many benefits of going through the bookshelves for the sake of Library Thing
is the rediscovery of old friends. This is such an enjoyable work of genius. I don't think I'd picked it up for ten years, but at one point in my life I was able to quote wholesale from the atomic theory:
What is a sheep only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around and doing intricate convolutions inside the sheep? What else is it but that?
This seemed to me hilarious when I was seventeen, and then the follow-on, that you gradually turn into a bicycle if you ride over poorly kept roads for too long, turned out to have wider application.
But I'm realising that there is more to it than that. Most of the chapters begin with reflections on the works of de Selby and his commentators - the footnote at the start of the penultimate chapter rambles on across the bottom half of six pages, starting from de Selby's inability to tell women from men and ending with the disappearance of Hatchjaw (including the troubling speculation that Hatchjaw was not Hatchjaw at all, but someone else of the same name). O'Nolan/O'Brien was of course a partial fugitive from the lore of ancient Irish literature, which may be where he drew some of his material on de Selby. He also famously took the piss out of Erwin Schrödinger, complaining that de Valera's Institute for Advanced Studies had doscovered two St Patricks and no God.
But I felt particularly on this reading that the shadow of Joyce, and of Joycean scholarship, looms over The Third Policeman
; I know it was published long after, but the commentators' hunt for meaning in de Selby reminds me a lot of Declan Kiberd's annotations completely missing the point in a recent edition of Ulysses
. I went hunting on-line for a bit more evidence, and found to my delight that O'Nolan/O'Brien's article about Joyce, "A Bash in the Tunnel", is on-line
. One passage that seems to me particularly important is this:
A friend of mine found himself next door at dinner to a well-known savant who appears in Ulysses. (He shall be nameless, for he still lives.) My friend, making dutiful conversation, made mention of Joyce. The savant said that Ireland was under a deep obligation to the author of Joyce's Irish Names of Places. My friend lengthily explained that his reference had been to a different Joyce. The savant did not quite understand, but ultimately confessed that he had heard certain rumours about the other man. It seemed that he had written some dirty books, published in Paris.
'But you are a character in one of them,' my friend incautiously remarked.
The next two hours, to the neglect of wine and cigars, were occupied with a heated statement by the savant that he was by no means a character in fiction, he was a man, furthermore he was alive and he had published books of his own.
'How can I be a character in fiction,' he demanded, 'if I am here talking to you?'
That incident may be funny, too, but its curiosity is this: Joyce spent a lifetime establishing himself as a character in fiction.
I won't go on about this at length, as I've discovered as a result of further googling that (perhaps unsurprisingly) I'm not the first person to have this thought; when I have a moment I'll read through David M. Haugen's essay on the subject from 1994
. But it seems to me closely linked with the fact that the narrator of The Third Policeman
has completely forgotten his own name.
One other small point that clicked with me more on this reading than before was the paint of no known colour, which Policeman MacCruiskeen puts on his bicycle to defeat the one-legged men who will be driven insane when they see it. Surely, surely, this must have been inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's "The Color Out Of Space"? And it must also be an ancestor of the "Blit" stories by David Langford, collected I see in Different Kinds of Darkness
. But in The Third Policeman
it is only one surreal idea among many.
Some day I'll write something deep and meaningful about the descriptions of landscape in this book; or the use of mathematical concepts of topology; or the possible links with the Dunsink Observatory. But it's a nice Sunday, and there are other things to do.