The Dalkey Archive starts with the narrator, Mick, and his friend Hackett (interesting use of first name or surname to indicate degrees of intimacy with the reader – in fact throughout the novel we never discover Mick’s surname) come across a man who has stubbed his toe. This man turns out to be an inventor by the name of de Selby, who has among other things invented a means by which time is eliminated. He has also, we soon learn, developed the means by which all living things on the face of the earth can be eliminated and he is just waiting for the right time to carry out this great work.
The proof of his ability to eliminate time is established quickly enough when de Selby invites them to accompany him to an undersea cavern where they meet St Augustine (whose ‘Dublin accent was unmistakable’) who de Selby interrogates furiously. And this is surely one of the funniest sections of the whole book. Here is something of the flavour of it:
– (de Selby) You admit you were a debauched and abandoned young man?
– (St Augustine) For a pagan I wasn’t the worst. Besides maybe it was the Irish in me.
– The Irish in you?
– Yes. My father’s name was Patrick. And he was a proper gobshite.
– Do you admit that the age or colour of the women didn’t matter to you where the transaction in question was coition.
– I’m not admitting anything. Please remember my eyesight was very poor….
– Interesting that your father’s name was Patrick. Is he a Saint?
– That reminds me. You have a Professor Binchy in your university outfit in Dublin who says there were really two Saint Patricks
– Two Saint Patricks? We have four of the buggers in our place and they’d make you sick with their shamrocks and shenanigans and bullshit.
The rest of the novel is a series of incidental pieces in which Mick sets out – with no great urgency it has to be said – to ensure that de Selby (who is above all a genial man – who just happens to be waiting for the right moment to destroy all human life and doesn’t mind admitting it) fails in his task.
As the narration continues, we are acquainted (or if you have read The Third Policeman – re-acquainted) with Policeman Pluck and his obsession with bicycles and the molecular theory (and truly the book is worth reading for that alone – and I will not spoil the joke by re-describing it here). Mick also meets James Joyce who claims that he never wrote Ulysses but that it was a joke perpetrated on him by Sylvia Beach in Paris.
The Dalkey Archive is above all a light hearted vehicle for a bit of intellectual play. The dialogue is good, the Irishisms delightful, the insanity seductive and it plays by the rules of a certain kind of English (not American) novel in which the hero is a largely ineffectual, bumbling person whose heart is in the right place and there is a romantic element and all works out happily in the end.
The Third Policeman, however, is a very different beast and we will come to that next time…
One of the ‘Annoying things’ that Sei Shonagon wrote about was sending off a message then realising it needed to be changed in some way. Thank God for modern technology hey! Now we can just go back and add it (or even seamlessly insinuate it as if it had been there all the time). Anyway, having put this post up it occurred to me that there was something more to say. There is an uncomfortable exchange between de Selby and St Augustine that grates modern sensibilities. Here is the dialogue that I refer to (slightly summarised)
– Are you a Nigger?
– I am a Roman
– You are of Berber stock…These people were non-white…The people of your homeland today are called Arabs.
– Berbers were blond white people with lovely blue eyes.
– All Africans are to some extent niggers.
– You must not overlook the African sun. I was a man who was very easily sunburnt.
Now, there is nothing to suggest anywhere else in his books that Flann O’Brien was racist – and a great deal to suggest that he enjoyed mocking the Church. Here, I am presuming he is mocking the church for believing its forefathers were blond and blue eyed – like many a crucified Christ in many a church – when they were men of dusky hue. It is St Augustine who is squirming to avoid the taint of darkness. But, nevertheless, the humour here is not great while the offence is.
What other signs are there that he enjoys mocking the church? Later in the book he introduces a character, a Jesuit priest, seemingly for the purpose simply of dismissing him as a stupid man.
It is because of these jokes no doubt that he wrote these dedicatory words
I dedicate these pages
to my Guardian Angel,
impressing on him
that I am only fooling
And warning him
to see to it that
there is no misunderstanding
when I go home.