Friday 3 January 2020

The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien

The other day I zipped through The Third Policeman till I came to the bit, roughly halfway through, where Sergeant Pluck is showing the narrator Policeman MacCruiskeen's room, in which, at first, he doesn't see much. Sergeant Pluck urges him to look again, in the right quarter.
'If I ever want to hide,' he remarked, 'I will always go upstairs in a tree. People have no gift for looking up, they seldom examine the lofty altitudes.
I looked at the ceiling.
'There is little to be seen there,' I said, 'except a bluebottle that looks dead.'
The Sergeant looked up and pointed with his stick.
'That is not a bluebottle', he said, 'that is Gogarty's outhouse.'
This is the beginning of the revelation that the ceiling of Policeman MacCruiskeen's room, comprising tiny cracks and marks and dead flies, was in fact a map of the parish, complete, reliable and astonishing.

I had recently read The Third Policeman when I first came to Ireland, and was thus primed for occupancy of this hill where I still live. The idea that there could be a police station under or beside the hill, of the old-fashioned kind where you could expect a crock of porridge to be served, and maybe a row of cabbages growing outside, and that the resident policeman's room should have evolved on its ceiling a map of the neighbourhood, was entirely consonant with my expectations.
'The funny thing is,' the Sergeant said, 'that MacCruiskeen lay for two years before he saw it was a map of superb ingenuity. ... And he lay looking at the map for five years more before he saw that it showed the way to eternity.'
Such are the monkey-tricks of Flann O'Brien's tale that a susceptible reader, newly arrived in Ireland, and with a prolific internal imagination, may find in her own surroundings a swift and complex replica of the book.
The world rang in my ear like a great workshop. Sublime feats of mechanics and chemistry were evident on every side. The earth was agog with invisible industry. Trees were active where they stood and gave uncompromising evidence of their strength. Incomparable grasses were forever at hand, lending their distinction to the universe.
Local knowledge and the mapping thereof together formed an appropriate conundrum, a difficult pancake, a very compound crux. After a year of very particular and scrupulous attention paid both to the actuality and the history of this hill, I have still not at all got to the bottom of the business of the police station and the map on the ceiling, but I look to Flann O'Brien for the comfort of incomplete revelation. As they emerge from eternity, with Sergeant Pluck explaining to Policeman MacCruiskeen his outlook on Ju-jubes and jelly-sweets and Turkish Delights, the narrator realises that although they have been underground for several hours, everything still wore an air of early morning.
There was an incommunicable earliness in everything, a sense of waking and beginning. Nothing had yet grown or matured and nothing begun had yet finished. A bird singing had not yet turned finally the last twist of tunefulness. A rabbit emerging still had a hidden tail.
He falls into a full and simple sleep, awakening the following morning with the recollection that he had been in the next world yesterday.

1 comment :

  1. Absolutely magic book. I read it first in the early 1980s and periodically since then. You have reminded me that maybe it's time for a revisit. Keep up the interesting blogging.