Here is the way the book starts:
“Not everyone knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade: but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured for himself out of a hollow iron bar.”
No shilly-shallying around then. And crucially no bumbling, likeable, ineffectual heroes. And is John Divney somehow a transmogrified ‘John the Divine’? – and if names are significant what about Phillip Mathers? I can’t think of anything – a name plucked out of the blue? Then what about Policeman Pluck himself who appears later on? Enough!
Here is the first paragraph of a novel that has come down to us as a comic masterpiece – does that not surprise you? And there is a humour in this book – but not a humour that will often make you laugh, though you will often find yourself smiling and nodding. And it seems to me that we can divide books, labelled ‘humorous’ into two classes – there are those where the humour is the core of the book (the books of P.G.Wodehouse would be a good example) and there are those where the humour is a coating to a darker enterprise (Catch 22 for example). The Dalkey Archive belongs, I think, to the former while The Third Policeman is very firmly in the camp of the latter.
And of course there is that Policeman who goes around puncturing bicycle tires in the name of the Atomic theory (which we read as the Molecular theory in The Dalkey Archive) and about which I will say no more except to say that this alone is worth reading the book for.
Another thing that this novel shares with The Dalkey Archive is a character called de Selby. But while both de Selbys are odd people in the extreme, they aren’t really the same. In The Third Policeman de Selby is only referred to as a great, misunderstood, often commented upon savant who has odd perceptions of the world, the universe and everything. He considers night, for example, to be an ‘occlusion of black air’ that falls regularly. De Selby appears to encapsulate all the madness of philosophy from Xeno onwards (the Xeno who said an arrow would never reach its target or the hare pass the tortoise) – and Flann O’Brien has great fun with this figure, mocking him with hyper respect.
But I want to show you something of the man’s genius as a writer. In this scene the narrator has gone to the now-dead Mathers’ house to get a box that has been hidden under the floor boards:
“…the match suddenly flickered and went out and the handle of the box, which I had lifted up about an inch slid heavily off my finger. Without stopping to light another match I thrust my hand bodily into the opening and just when it should be closing about the box something happened. I cannot hope to describe what it was but it had frightened me very much long before I had understood it even slightly. It was some change which came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable. It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye…”
So, some form of magical transformation has occurred and the nameless narrator now finds himself in a new normality. It is only at the back of the book in a post-script in which Flann O’Brien is writing to William Saroyan (the strange serendipitous linkings that are affecting this enterprise) that he explains that this transformation is one where the narrator has gone from the world of the living to the world of the dead (killed by a mine or a bomb of some sort presumably) – but so subtly is this done that you don’t know it. So he appears to continue being alive but suddenly he is aware that he has a soul (who he calls ‘Joe’) and the rest of the story is a sojourn in a strange kind of Hell. It is the seamlessness of this transition that is so wonderfully achieved so when, as I did, you go back to re-read it, you see how perfectly it was done so that you had read it and understood it, but really had not understood it. There is a lot of that quality running through this book.