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Shamrocks can speak: the strange fatalism of Flann O’Brien

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the third policeman

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Dennis Donoghue’s introduction is of little help in divining what disease Flann O’Brien intended to cure in his writing of The Third Policeman, certainly not his own alcoholism, in this strange little book only an alcoholic could conceivably produce. His text seems aptly suited to the glittering vogue of contemporary flash fictions and hypertextual experiments. Every online capsule about the book felt intriguing, dynamic, and like many an insatiable reader, many reviewers were seduced, including this one, into the purchase of a copy.

The storyline is simple enough: an unnamed narrator of rural Irish extraction is persuaded by a strange companion, James Divney, to attack an old landed farmer for his wealth, much of which is purportedly contained in a little black box under the floorboard, which the young man discovers, and in that momentary focus of his attention, also realizes his peril. He knows not how this ominous change works upon him, and walks out of the house into a strange surrealist landscape on his wooden leg. He discovers strange people and then a police station where bicycles figure prominently, just as they do today in Beijing.

Discussing the plot of this novel any further would place us in danger of unraveling the whole with one yank of the thread. O’Brien does this well enough on his own without the assistance of editors or acerbic Italians, but perhaps some clues, littering themselves like bread crumbs, can place us on the scent of the author’s call to arms: there are a series of contests embedded in the tale. In the early pages, a struggle of wills between Divney and the narrator, such that their physical intimacy becomes “intolerable,” or between the narrator and De Selby, an obtuse theorist who brackets the narrative in an outer framework, or the narrator and the policemen, with their nonsensical inventions.

O’Brien shares a jazz like affinity with subversive dissidents like Bulgakov, but the absurdist aspects of The Third Policemen are so obscure they incite annoyance that follows in the wake of the IRA, the troubles, and the most fortunate historical demise of “the Irish question.” Anticipation rarely gratifies expectations, let alone exceeds them.

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