The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

A review of the absurdist literary fiction novel The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien.

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If you’re a fan of all things surreal and avant-garde, The Third Policeman by Brian O’Nolan, writing as Flann O’Brien, is like being hurled over the handlebars of a bicycle and sent tumbling down a curious rabbit-hole. It tells the story of an unnamed, wooden-legged narrator in rural Ireland who murders his neighbour with a spade and soon finds himself lost amidst a strange hinterland of bizarre goings-on, much of which seems to make no logical sense whatsoever.

With the narrator having cultivated a peculiar obsession with a crackpot philosopher called de Selby (one of his theories is that the world is, in fact, shaped like a sausage), we inexplicably find the narrator encountering anything from half-human/half-bicycle beings, to an elevator which stretches to eternity, to armies of one-legged men who tie themselves to one another in order to fight properly. As you can tell, bizarre is something of an understatement when describing this book.

Funnily enough, although The Third Policeman was written in 1940, it was rejected by publishers at the time, until it was posthumously released in 1967 following the author’s death. Ironically, it is now remembered today as Flann O’Brien’s masterpiece, with much of his characteristic wry humour and witty dialogue in evidence throughout, though it is by no means an easy read and may well be a touch too unusual for some.

By turns experimental, shambling and fantastical, O’Brien’s writing channels a similar spirit to the warped imaginative flair of Lewis Carroll, only with a much more adult sensibility. O’Brien’s dialogue is typically playful and out of left-field and he has a particular knack for puns and malapropisms. Although the story progresses linearly, it unfolds more like a series of surreal, impressionistic vignettes, popping up in the mind as vividly as the grotesquerie of any Hieronymus Bosch painting.

None of this is to say that it isn’t funny, of course. It often is. In fact, The Third Policeman will remind many of the sort of humour one has seen fellow Irishman and TV sitcom writer Graham Linehan produce (Father Ted, Black Books). However, O’Brien’s eccentric wordplay and oddball juxtapositions all serve a literary purpose of painting a quasi-philosophical picture of never-ending, cyclical purgatory the narrator occupies, which it could be argued is a version of Hell, of sorts, though this is still hotly debated.

In actuality, it’s unclear exactly what the overarching meaning of The Third Policeman is as the plot is so freewheeling, but the novel is so rich in imagination that it almost ceases to matter. It still gives the reader plenty to mull over, largely thanks to the philosophical subtext which becomes more and more obvious by the novel’s closure. Nevertheless, though underrated, it’s clear Flann O’Brien certainly belongs to the pantheon of legendary Irish modernists including such literary giants as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

The Third Policeman remains a dark, funny, twisted existential fable of surrealistic literature, dabbling in absurdist logic and nonsensical situations. Flann O’Brien clearly had a philosophical vision behind this novel which has only made its metaphysical comedy and darkly comic fantasy ambitions more acute over time. It’s somewhat tragic, then, that O’Brien never lived to see The Third Policeman receive the acclaim it so arguably deserves and rightly enjoys today.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and aspiring novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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