I am completely half afraid to think.

I mentioned a couple of months ago that I read or reread much of Flann O’Brien’s work this year – as is obvious I’ve been hopelessly behind when it comes to actually writing about what I’ve read. But the first thing I reread was also the first book by him I’d ever read: The Third Policeman.

The story- at the beginning of the book our nameless narrator gets into a creepy, hostile, co-dependent relationship with a man named John Diveney. He allows Diveney to convince him to conspire to kill a rich man and steal his wealth. But only much later does Diveney to reveal (or so the narrator thinks) the location of the loot- in the house of the man they’d killed. When our narrator goes to collect it, strange things begin to happen. He encounters the ghost of his victim, develops a conscience (called “Joe” for convenience) and is led in mysterious ways to a police station where everyone is obsessed with bicycles. A series of strange events follows.

The narrator is also a scholar of the works of the (fictional) scientist/philosopher de Selby. The book is full of references and footnotes about de Selby’s crackpot theories – for example that nighttime is the result of accumulated black air from volcanic pollution, or that sleep does not exist – instead we go through a series of fits caused by said black air. Other theories of de Selby concern his conviction that by reflecting oneself in a series of mirrors it is possible to see one’s own childhood self, and his insistence that he had mastered time travel.

This benign property of his prose is not, one hopes, to be attributed to the reason noticed by the eccentric du Garbandier, who said ‘the beauty of reading a page of de Selby is that it leads one inescapably to the happy conviction that one is not, of all nincompoops, the greatest’.

The de Selby sections are the best, the most absurd, and the funniest in the book. And though de Selby has no real relevance to the plot (in this book nothing does, so it hardly matters) his interpretations of science and philosophy work well within the logic of the world the narrator enters. This is, after all, a world in which a policeman spends his time making a series of otherwise identical boxes that fit into each other, even now that the more recent boxes are so small as to be invisible. A world in which the movement of atoms means that people who ride their bicycles too frequently become, in time, part-bicycle themselves.

The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.

This leads to all sorts of complications. When such a man dies, do you bury his human form or his bicycle? What degree of perversion is inherent in riding someone else’s bicycle (or fooling them into riding your own)? And since shunning the bicycle and walking means turning to clay, what is the safest method of transport?

All these very serious issues are discussed in some of the most elaborate, high-flown dialogue you could hope to encounter. It’s glorious – particularly when (this made my second encounter with the book even more joyous than the first) you’re hearing it all in Irish accents.

The end of The Third Policeman explains away the silly science logic of the previous pages with an equivalent of an “it was all a dream!” ending that has ruined so many other books. It doesn’t spoil this (though I remember being disappointed by it when I read it some years ago). I’m not sure why this is, but I think it may be because a book can’t betray its own internal logic when it has none. Or something. Or maybe the rest of it is so incredible that nothing could spoil it? Either way it’s magnificent.

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