“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 are nearly half people and half bicycles…….when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.”
~~ Flann OBrien, The Third Policeman ~~
Brian O`Nolan was his given name, gifted to him by the grace of God and his mother and father in a sparking flash of wisdom which erupted, resplendent and comet like into heads filled to the brim with the shock and awe of the wee life that they had brought into the world. Nowadays he is best known to us one and all under the sobriquet of Flann O`Brien with which he published his novels which range from before and after his first and last novels which included, by various degrees and other sundry moments in time and space, At-Swim-Two-Birds, to The Third Policeman, published posthumously in 1967, and then again some time before and after that date – or perhaps not.
“Descartes spent far too much time in bed subject to the persistent hallucination that he was thinking. You are not free from a similar disorder……I am completely half afraid to think.”
The Third Policeman is a book about a bike – or is it a book; it has been described as absurdist, a book about bicycles, a philosophical masterpiece, or as Alice in Wonderland in Hell.
We follow an unnamed narrator as he meanders around the countryside of an unspecific, unnamed place centred upon a strange, outwardly two dimensional police station which boasts strange multi – dimensional characters on the inside, among them a bicycle. The bicycle is indeed a bona fide character in it`s own right, because we are never sure in the novel where the rider starts and his bicycle ends. The police officers on duty are preoccupied with bicycle theft, and the theft of bicycle parts, but also find time out from their busy schedule of all things bicycle to discuss the philosophy of life, the universe and “…the whole pancake” as they call it.
The narrator follows the police on a trip to eternity via an elevator hidden just round the corner: indeed, at first sight, the whole book can be seen as an endless, comical journey through purgatory; but the intention of purgatory is as a time consuming waiting room for heaven; it`s an aimless, pointless, and nonsensical place to be trapped in and ponder your philosophical navel. The novel was initially rejected by publishers as simply too fantastic; they didn`t possess enough imagination to wrap their heads around O`Brien`s comical invention. It was left on the publisher`s back burner for several decades until it was published in 1967 after O`Brien`s death. I guess a slightly different, skewed, surreal sense of humour is required to garner the full benefit from this novel – or if you are either Irish or have the emerald green blood of your ancestors coursing through your veins and like a good drop of Guinness from time to time.
“Who is Fox?, I asked.
“Policeman Fox is the third of us,” said the Sergeant, ” but we never see him or hear tell of him at all because he is always on his beat and never off it and he signs the book in the middle of the night when even a badger is asleep. He is as mad as a hare, he never interrogates the public and he is always taking notes.”
You shouldn`t read the publicity blurb on the back of the novel, because these have a tendency to give the plot away in all books not just this, oh so special one. Let`s just say it could be about a bicycle from which small acorn grows a huge oak tree of philosophical discussion among the characters in the novel – including the bicycle.
There is a certain anarchy in the Irish make up, a lust for anti – authoritarian licence, and an inverted love of rules; all the better to break them. There are many great writers that hold up the rules only to break them with undisguised glee, but it is in Flann O`Brien that it finds it`s comic exemplar. The Third Policeman while being a superficial tale of comedic events and personalities, has a darker, sinister, fantastical Gothic structure on which to hang it`s tale of lost souls wandering through eternity without rhyme or reason for their continued existence.
The sad fact is, that so many in the “real” world suffer the same fate: but then again, this novel asks the pertinent question of what is real? We ourselves, may be unknowingly trapped within the bottle of another dimension, stacked up there on a shelf along with an endless number of other pan dimensional bottles which stretches on to the crack of doom.
“Past humanity is not only implicit in each new man born but is contained in him. Humanity is an ever – widening spiral and life is the beam that plays on each succeeding ring. All humanity from it`s beginning to it`s end is already present but the beam has not yet played beyond you.”
The Third Policeman presents us with the great philosophical conundrum of existence, wrapped up within the entertaining fable of a bicycle. And who really is Policeman Fox?