Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Third Policeman

The back matter for this novel describes it as, "Flann O'Brien's brilliant comic novel about the nature of time, death, and existence. Told by a narrator who has committed a botched robbery and brutal murder, the novel follows him and his adventures in a two-dimensional police station where, through the theories of the scientist/philosopher de Selby, he is introduced to 'Atomic Theory' and its relation to bicycles, the existence of eternity (which turns out to be just down the road) and de Selby's view that the earth is not round, but sausage-shaped. With the help of his newly found soul, named Joe, he grapples with the riddles and contradictions that three eccentric policemen present to him."


What the back matter doesn't mention is that it's a very talky narrative. Hugely entertaining chatter, but for long stretches not much happens. The writer can spend a whole page talking about how roads have personalities, making jokes and puns of every stripe along the way, but at the end of the page, the folks in the scene, if that's what we're calling them are in exactly the same spot that they were in the beginning. A thriller, it's not. Luckily, I'm not reading this, I'm listening to it as an audiobook, narrated by Jim Norton (lately a Tony Award-winning actor), who is as hilarious as the text. And that's saying something. My favorite bit so far is when the narrator reveals that he has forgotten his own name, and he reels off a list of possible names to his new best friend who is also his soul, Joe, who makes fun of the names by making up stories about the lives that might go with such names.

"Signor Beniamino Bari, Joe said, the eminent tenor. Three baton-charges outside La Scala at great tenor's premiere. Extraordinary scenes were witnessed outside La Scala Opera House when a crowd of some ten thousand devotees, incensed by the management's statement that no more standing-room was available, attempted to rush the barriers. Thousands were injured, 79 fatally, in the wild melee. Constable Peter Coutts sustained injuries to the groin from which he is unlikely to recover. These scenes were comparable only to the delirium of the fashionable audience inside after Signor Bari had concluded his recital. The great tenor was in admirable voice. Starting with a phase in the lower register with a husky richness which seemed to suggest a cold, he delivered the immortal strains the Che Gelida Manina, favorite aria of the beloved Caruso. As he warmed to his God-like task, note after golden note spilled forth to the remotest corner of the vast theatre, thrilling all and sundry to the inner core. When he reached the high C where heaven and earth seem married in one great climax of exaltation, the audience arose in their seats and cheered as one man, showering hats, programmes and chocolate-boxes on the great artist."
What a fabulous cartoon. For that, you have to get off the treadmill to laugh in earnest. And that's only half the bit. Joe has another name at the ready and another funny story. Following this the narrator walks along and meets a man and tries to figure out who he is. He asks a bunch of questions of the odd little man with the pipe and he gets strange answers. Finally, he says to the man, "What is your objection to life?"

The reply is this:

He blew little bags of smoke at me and looked at me closely from behind the bushes of hair which were growing about his eyes.
'Is it life?' he answered. 'I would rather be without it,' he said, 'for there is a queer small utility in it. You cannot eat it or drink it or smoke it in your pipe, it does not keep the rain out and it is a poor armful in the dark if you strip it and take it to bed with you after a night of porter when you are shivering with the red passion. It is a great mistake and a thing better done without, like bed-jars and foreign bacon.' 
Funny, right? It's even funnier out loud.

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