Sunday, November 11, 2007


After a few fairly busy weeks of reading, I suddenly found myself with no free time - and somewhat at a loss as to what I should take on to read next anyway.

So, I returned to this old favourite. This book is so inventive, so side-splittingly funny, so scintillatingly well-written, that I often carry it around with me just for random dipping into whenever I have a few spare moments alone; but I hadn't read it cover-to-cover for a few years now, so I was about due.

Flann O'Brien was the pen-name of Brian O'Nolan, an Irish civil servant who wrote a funny column (originally, I think, daily, but later slightly cut back to 3 times a week) in The Irish Times throughout the middle decades of the 20th Century. (These pieces were published under the alias Myles na Gopaleen, and a number of anthologies have been compiled; I highly recommend them, if they're still available.)

He also turned out a handful of comic novels over the years, of which I think this one is much the best (although his debut, At Swim-Two-Birds, was very warmly praised in a review by Graham Greene). All of them are extremely bitty, betraying their origin as off-cuts of the newspaper column; but at least with The Third Policeman the central narrative thread - and the convincing voice of the 1st person narrator - is strong enough to carry you along through all the disparate flights of whimsy. It is an odyssey through rural Ireland, and also through the wilder reaches of the imagination, through the guilty conscience of a murderer. (For years, we O'Brien fans have taken additional delight in his comparative obscurity, in the fact that he was "our secret", a special treat shared only by a select few. Now, alas, The Third Policeman has been prominently mentioned in the TV series Lost, and has become one of the hottest searches on Amazon! Oh, well - I shouldn't begrudge others the pleasure of discovering this, I suppose.)

One of the many wonderful conceits in the book is the protagonist's obsessive ambition to write the definitive study of the life and works of an obscure 17th Century philosopher/inventor/alchemist called De Selby. Numerous extracts from this work-in-progress are quoted in the course of the story, complete with voluminous footnotes. At one point (purely to meet a personal challenge, one imagines: to prove that it could be done) there is an entire page of footnotes. Of course, this is no more than a convenient pretext to introduce a lot of whimsical nonsense that has no bearing on the central story, but it is so brilliantly carried off that you just don't care. The footnotes - a superb parody of academic writing, which gradually builds a fragmentary picture of the bizarre feuds waged between earlier De Selby commentators - are in fact one of the funniest elements of a very, very funny novel.

O'Nolan spoke fluent Gaelic (something of a rarity in Irish literary circles, even then), and wrote in it on occasion. And the rhythms and phraseology of that rich, strange language infuse his writing here. You can open this book at random and find something extraordinary on almost any page - every paragraph, almost every sentence has something of odd, startling beauty in it.

I don't usually like to include quotations here on BookBook, but I couldn't resist this one (describing a midnight bicycle ride through the country):
"Other winds were moving about in the stillness of the evening, loitering in the trees and moving leaves and grasses to show that the green world was still present in the dark. Water by the roadside, always overshouted in the roistering day, now performed audibly in its hidings." (And there's another one here on my blog, if you're interested.)

This book is a kind of pastiche of Irishness - of the Irish language, Irish literature, Irish manners - but an extremely affectionate one: both pastiche and celebration at the same time. If you haven't ever visited Ireland, or read many other Irish writers, you might not quite get how wonderful it is. But you will still wet yourself laughing.


Brendan said...

Personally I prefer At Swim-Two-Birds somewhat myself, but The Third Policeman is in a fairly close second place -- Office MacCruiskeen alone is worth the price of admission.
A slight nitpick -- O'Brian (actually O'Nolan) spoke Irish as a first language, as his parents had been revivalists and spoke the language to one another at home. Some of his very funniest writing is in Irish: An Beal Bocht, later translated into English as The Poor Mouth, is a pants-wettingly funny send-up of the miserable tales of rural suffering that were the dominant taste in Irish-language literature at the time. I think I have a copy somewhere, if you haven't read it.

Froog said...

I've read the English version of The Poor Mouth, but I fear the Irish will always be beyond me.

Have you read it both ways, Brendan, you language tart?

I never ventured an opinion as to whether O'Nolan regarded Gaelic as his first language, but I rather suspect not. But I did mention he was pretty much fluent in it. Joint first languages, perhaps?

Originally he was writing The Cruiskeen Lawn in Gaelic on alternate days. That stuff, I fear, may never be translated into English - and might easily get lost altogether.

A side project for you, if you ever tire of the Chinese thing?

There's a wonderful - very funny, very sad - biography of him, called No Laughing Matter, by an Anthony Cronin. I highly recommend it. I wish I had my copy here in Beijing with me.

I have quoted from it once or twice over on my Barstool blog, if you care to go and search the back catalogue.