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May 19, 2008 | by  | in Books |
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Neglected Masterpieces

The Third Policeman
Flann O’Brien

Brian O’Nolan’s job prevented him from writing under his own name, so over the course of hundreds of newspaper columns and God only knows how many letters to the editor of The Irish Times, he wrote under noms de plume. In fact, he wrote under so many different names that there’s probably a rather tedious thesis in trying to pin them all down. Of these manifold monikers, Flann O’Brien was reserved for his five novels, and of these five, The Third Policeman is the best.

O’Brien’s involutory debut, At-Swim-Two-Birds, was more popular with writers and academics than with his publishers, who thought it a bit much “fantastic” and bit little profitable. So when O’Brien rocked on up with The Third Policeman, they balked on the (inane) grounds that it was too much fantastic. And it was thus that one of the finest comic novels written in English languished as typescript in a locked drawer for twenty-seven years, waiting for the spectacularly alcoholic author’s death to be published. Some of the more hopeless romantics in lit-crit circles have suggested that the unprinted masterpiece drove O’Nolan to drink; I believe he drank because he was a drunk, but who the hell am I to get in the way of a nice story? Or a tragic one, for that matter.

The novel starts with a surrealist’s homage to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The unnamed narrator grows up to become obsessed with the works of an obscure philosopherscientist called De Selby (whose bickering commentators are featured throughout in footnotes that constitute a comic masterpiece in their own right), and this obsession leads him to murder. What follows is a fable of guilt. The narrator is doomed to wander a strange county with a strange twodimensional police station populated by two even stranger cops (and a bicycle) through a sequence of events that defy synopsis. All the while, the penumbral third policeman looms: an instrument of divine wrath or a murdered man’s tenant, depending on how you look at him. And all of this is very funny.

The Third Policeman was featured in the TV show Lost, which brought about an increase in sales to complement the modest increase in academic attention the book’s received over the last decade and a bit. This is a good thing. Let me be clear: this is a novel you should have on your shelf. If you don’t believe me, find a copy and read the opening line. You’ll believe me then.

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About the Author ()

BK Drinkwater's actual origins are shrouded in mystery, but it is said that he sprang from the summit of Taranaki fully formed, four days after the birth of Aristotle. He resents having been overshadowed in this way.

Comments (4)

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  1. Will says:

    hardly neglected. Both are still very much in print. What is your definitiion of a neglected classic? Something the self described artisticly minded university student who has read a few shit Kerouac books and dreams of travelling to India one day, man, is unaware of?

  2. Karl Bronstein says:

    Oh Will, I have never met you (and hopefully never will) but it is a tad presumptuous of you to think that you (with your pathetic name and general mediocre comment writing skills) can differentiate between classic and common fare better than Mr Drinkwater (who I guarantee is more well read than you).

    You have failed to make a point and therefore are a failure.

  3. Karl Bronsten says:

    Oh Will, I have never met you (and hopefully never will) but it is a tad presumptuous of you to think that you (with your pathetic name and general mediocre comment writing skills) can differentiate between classic and common fare better than Mr Drinkwater (who I guarantee is more well read than you).

    You have failed to make a point and therefore are a failure.

  4. The breadth of Will’s comment doesn’t seem to reach beyond the title and into the review at all, which really isn’t surprising given the lack of effort and brainpower most internet trolls are prepared to dish out nowadays.

    I can just imagine him sitting there smug and contented with his Finnegan’s Wake book-on-tape playing in the background thinking, “Artisticly minded university student who has read a few shit Kerouac books and dreams of travelling to India one day. Man, I totally nailed that Drinkwater asshole to the cross. Heh. Guess I’ll see you in three days, after which you’ll have a reply, heh heh,” which he then signs off with a couple of finger-gun “pow-pow” gestures and a wink.

    The review itself was substantive, well-written and engaging. And in a community like Victoria where the extent of some people’s reading canon doesn’t reach beyond Harry Potter and Dan Brown, this is indeed a neglected masterpiece.

    But it’s all semantics, and Will’s a twat for thinking it was in anyway relevant.

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