Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells

[This is a version of an essay I published a few years ago. For a fully annotated version see “Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman,” New Hibernia Review, vol. 10 no. 4 (Winter 2006), 84-104.]

During the approach to the Second World War Brian O’Nolan wrote two novels in English under the pen-name Flann O’Brien, both of which are closely connected with bombs. The first of these, At Swim-Two-Birds (published by Longman’s in 1939), sold few copies and got lukewarm reviews, so it could be said to have bombed. The following year Longman’s premises in London were destroyed by a real bomb, and with them the remaining stocks of O’Nolan’s book, and after that it more or less disappeared from public consciousness until it was reprinted in 1960. His second novel, The Third Policeman (finished in 1940), ends with a revelation that might be described as a bombshell. In the last pages of the book the narrator makes the shocking discovery that he has been blown to bits by a booby trap and that he’s telling his tale from beyond the grave. On being offered to the publishers, this novel did more than bomb: it was rejected, and didn’t see print until after O’Nolan’s death.

The link between these two bombs – the real one that destroyed the first edition of At Swim-Two-Birds and the fictitious one in The Third Policeman – may be a brittle one, but it seems to me worth forging. Setting them side by side helps to underscore two things about O’Nolan’s work: the extent to which it is bound up with violence, and the extent to which the imaginary violence it contains has a grounding in reality. The independent Ireland of which At Swim-Two-Birds is an ambiguous celebration was built on armed conflict, and by the time the novel was published that conflict was spreading rapidly through Europe. My contention here is that this novel and its successor express a response to the prospect of annihilation raised by the rapid approach of the Second World War. Everything in them tends to confirm the likelihood both of the outbreak of military aggression and of its cataclysmic effects; effects which may be summarized in the destructive capabilities of bombs, whether conventional – like the bomb that blew up the warehouse – or nuclear – like the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The processes of imagining, constructing and countenancing the use of bombs are carefully mimicked in the pages of these books, and mark them out as prominent examples of what might be called the comedy of cataclysm, of which Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr Strangelove (1964) is the most celebrated example.

O’Nolan’s consciousness that violence is the presiding genius of his time finds its most direct expression in the ruthlessness with which he kills off his narrators. Much of At Swim-Two-Birds concerns the efforts of the fictional characters in a novel to outwit and finally execute the writer who brought them together. And at the end of the book this cast of revolutionary characters – all of whom collaborate in writing part of the narrative they inhabit – is massacred at one fell swoop, when the pages that sustain their existence are burnt by the writer’s servant. In The Third Policeman the threat of death hangs over the narrator from near the beginning of the story, and at the end he finds that he has been dead since the moment he started to live in fear of death. Like Europe, then, both novels contain the seeds of their own destruction, which germinate and come to appalling fruition as the narrative unfolds. At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman re-enact the contemporary struggle to the death between dictatorship and democracy, and the outcome O’Nolan envisages – for both the real and the fictional struggle – is a catastrophic explosion.

At the same time, the people who inhabit these novels, whether despots or revolutionaries, are supremely civil individuals, always ready to come to terms with one another or to exchange elaborate compliments. The word “civil” is, indeed, among O’Nolan’s favourites, invoking as it does both the prospect of good company and the potential for an unexpected outbreak of genial civil war. The fictional insurgents in At Swim-Two-Birds are so uniformly courteous that one character in the novel who reads about them complains that he’s unable to tell them apart, condemning their “spiritual and physical identity” and claiming that “true dialogue is dependent on the conflict rather than the confluence of minds.” Strangely, though, it’s the confluence of minds that leads to violence in O’Nolan’s work. For him, people resemble certain chemical substances, which, while independently harmless, may when combined acquire the potential to wreak widespread devastation. This process of destructive combining comes to a head at the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, where the many civil conversations that fill the text culminate in the politest of exchanges between a devilish fairy called the Pooka MacPhellimey and a man called Trellis – the dictatorial author whose characters have mutinied against him. Tormented by the Pooka beyond endurance, Trellis is finally goaded into calling him a “black bastard,” to which the devil-fairy retorts: “The character of your colloquy is not harmonious […] and makes for barriers between the classes. Honey-words in torment, a growing urbanity against the sad extremities of human woe, that is the […] injunction I place upon your head.” From this moment Trellis is compelled to behave like a sweet-spoken saint in adversity, warmly congratulating his adversary on the inventiveness with which he smashes, mangles and bursts the unfortunate author’s limbs and organs. Here the confluence of characters proves agonizing, but it is marked by a verbal fluency that manufactures poetry from pain, wit from wounds, delight from disintegration. For O’Nolan as for Yeats, creation and destruction spring from the same roots, and honest writers of both real and fictional histories are forever condemned to pay horrified tribute to this paradox.

If civility is one characteristic of O’Nolan’s Ireland, another is its obsession with knowledge. The acquisition of – or rather, the appearance of possessing – arcane inside information is the supreme goal of every character he invents. In his celebrated column in the Irish Times, for instance, O’Nolan’s alter-ego Myles na gCopaleen veers from sharing his expertise in the field of steam transport to leading his mighty Research Bureau in its efforts to find new means of circumventing wartime shortages; from collaborating with Einstein in his researches to playing duets with the eminent violinist Fritz Kreisler; from drawing on his personal intimacy with Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova to intervening in the global economy through his directorship of the Myles na gCopaleen Banking Corporation. The knowledge he claims in each of these areas – like all the knowledge professed by O’Nolan’s creations – serves the ends, not of some spurious objective “truth” now discredited by Einstein’s theory of relativity, but of relentless self-promotion. Knowledge in O’Nolan’s work is only ever used to make its possessor look big. And it rarely if ever achieves this objective; partly, no doubt, because everyone is familiar with the rules by which the know-all or egg-head operates, and is thus forearmed against his grandiose pretensions.

In a nutshell, the rules are these:

• Facts, both historical and physical, may be freely distorted or invented, but must always be stated with absolute confidence, no matter how misplaced.
• Facts must be conveyed with the help of the most powerful rhetorical tools available. Details of these are given at intervals throughout At Swim-Two-Birds.
• The information thus conveyed must be entirely useless, and must do no good either to you or to anyone else. It must not advance your career, improve your health, or help you to win the philosophical compensation prize of getting to know yourself. Your information must, in fact, contribute nothing whatsoever to the well-being of humanity.
• On the contrary, your information should if possible kill you, or even damn you to perdition. The possession of it, after all, is very often the result of a Faustian pact, a declaration – implicit or explicit – of one’s willingness to sell one’s soul for worthless knowledge.

The Faustian strain in O’Nolan’s work came to the fore in his play Faustus Kelly (1943), in which a local politician teaches the devil that Irish public life is more authentically hellish than Hell itself, and that knowing how to operate in it is a task beyond even the Prince of Darkness. In The Third Policeman, too, Ireland is infernal, and the protagonist is sent there for his murderous zeal in the pursuit of learning. Knowledge is capable of producing the bombs that dismembered so many bodies in the Second World War; but before it does this devilish work it must demoralize the soul to the extent that it is able to condone the manufacture and use of bombs. And in the Ireland of the thirties and forties, O’Nolan tells us, this demoralizing process is exceptionally well advanced.

O’Nolan’s opus didn’t begin with this jaded view of the contemporary forms of knowledge. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, begins by treating knowledge with respect: in its opening pages, learning of all kinds figures as the chief weapon wielded by activists for democracy and civil rights in the struggle against tyranny. The novel’s protagonist is a student who is writing a novel about an older author (Trellis), who is also writing a novel, though of a very different kind from the one planned by the student. The story Trellis proposes to write will be a “salutary book to be read by all,” filled with smut in order to appeal to the modern reading public and populated only by villains; a book which will “show the terrible cancer of sin in its true light and act as a clarion-call to torn humanity.” Trellis’s view of sin is appallingly limited given the momentous times in which he’s writing, with fascism on the rise and global conflict just around the corner. He is horrified not by stories of massacres, invasions and civil war but “by the spate of sexual and other crimes recorded in recent times in the newspapers – particularly in those published on Saturday night.” And his scapegoats for these crimes are the motley cast of characters he assembles to participate in his “bad book”, all of whom have been stolen unacknowledged from the work of other writers. It is this process of being forced into an uncongenial role to satisfy the whim of an egotistical plagiarist that the characters object to, and that provokes them to insurrection. From one point of view, their rebellion resembles Ireland’s revolt against its self-styled English landlords; after all, Trellis is the proprietor of a pub called the Red Swan Hotel, so he is indisputably a landlord. But Trellis is also indisputably Irish, with parents from both North and South (“his father was a Galwayman, sober and industrious, tried and true in the service of his country. His mother was from far Fermanagh”). So even the rising he provokes is a form of plagiary, a pale imitation of the struggle for independence. In inventing it, O’Nolan – or his student persona – would seem to be making a point about the substitution of one form of despotism for another that has taken place since the achievement of independence. The new despotism is a petty one, dominated by the church and the policing it encourages: a policing to which Trellis is as much subject as the characters he exploits (his views on the “cancer of sin” have clearly been thrashed into him by the Christian Brothers). And for the student novelist who creates both Trellis and the rebel characters, the resolution to Ireland’s continued subjection to tyrants large and small lies in the revolutionizing of the novel form itself: a transformation of the genre into a treasure-house or storage-room for the many kinds of wisdom that are freely available to Irishmen of all classes.

Before beginning the story of Trellis, the student novelist draws up a manifesto for the modern novel that resembles the charter of a new nation, an idealistic declaration of independence for twentieth-century prose fiction:

The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic […] It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service […] The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

The reference to the exclusion of “persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature” smacks of elitism, and many of O’Nolan’s characters suffer from advanced cases of intellectual snobbery. But in practice the novel written by the student embraces popular culture with the same enthusiasm it shows for the classics of Irish literature. Its “wealth of references to existing works” accommodates fireside anecdote alongside old Irish storytelling, the American Western novel alongside the philosophical disputation, the poetry of the working man alongside lyrics relating to the ancient Irish kings. All classes of Irish society are represented in the student’s book. All are given work to do and rewarded – at least for a time – with “a decent standard of living.” And all classes of Irish society are shown to have their own peculiar branches of knowledge, to be raided at will by omnivorous youth in its quest for understanding and reconciliation.

Certain forms of knowledge are of common and obvious interest to all classes: among them the rituals associated with “intoxicating beverages and their strange intestinal chemistry,” together with their physical consequences (described in a tract by the Christian Brothers which the student author incorporates into his novel); or information pertaining to turf or track (the student also incorporates letters from a Newmarket man who delivers the goods on “cast-iron plungers”). But the respect of one class for knowledge associated with other classes is also evident throughout the narrative. The working class figures who populate the student’s novel, and who form the backbone of the revolutionary movement against the tyrannical landlord-author Trellis, show an enthusiastic appreciation for the story-telling skills of a character from a quite different tradition – Finn Mac Cool, a “hero of old Ireland.” And although the poet they most admire is the “Poet of the Pick” Jem Casey, author of a ballad with the stirring refrain A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN, Casey himself when he enters the narrative is a confirmed admirer of ancient Irish poetry. On meeting the mad king Sweeny Casey announces “By God I know a bloody poet when I hear one. Hands off the poets. I can write a verse myself and I respect the man that can do the same.”

The solidarity between ancient and modern Ireland and the literatures of both is expressed with still greater eloquence by another working class character from the student’s novel:

You can’t beat it, of course, said Shanahan with a reddening of the features, the real old stuff of the native land, you know, the stuff that brought scholars to our shores when your men on the other side were on the flat of their bellies before the calf of gold with a sheepskin around their man. It’s the stuff that put our country where she stands today, Mr Furriskey, and I’d have my tongue out of my head by the bloody roots before I’d be heard saying a word against it.

Here again the respect for knowledge “that brought scholars to our shores” is warmly and forcefully articulated; in the deep past, at least, knowledge was a matter for unqualified celebration. It’s no wonder that the revolutionary Shanahan delights in “the real old stuff of our native land” since what we see of it in the student’s novel is peculiarly democratic: churchmen and laymen, kings, witches, madmen and milkmaids engage in rhetorical or athletic competition without getting aggressive, and boast outrageously without giving offence. But Shanahan adds a qualification to his praise of old Irish poetry as it is practised and purveyed in modern times: “the man in the street, where does he come in? By God he doesn’t come in at all as far as I can see.” In the twentieth century, knowledge is hemmed in by elitism and by “barriers between the classes.” In the world the student inhabits – the world beyond the pages of his novel where he is reading for a degree at University College Dublin, like Stephen Dedalus – knowledge, and the competition between different kinds of knowledge, is in a permanent state of war, of which the Second World War is merely an aggravated symptom.

The student novelist’s uncle is a member of the lower middle classes who is deeply embroiled in the war of knowledge. Like Trellis, he’s a great purveyor of hackneyed wisdom: “A good degree is a very nice thing to have […] The old schoolmasters believed in the big stick […] For what is the love of God but the love of your neighbour? […] Doctoring and teaching, the two of them are marked out for special graces and blessings.” And like Trellis, the nature of his hackneyed wisdom identifies him as the product of a Catholic education, which serves to strengthen the church’s hegemony in Ireland. But he claims to have a stake in this hegemony: he has a “very special friend” in the Christian Brothers, and can pull strings to get the student-novelist’s friend into the order. And his claim to an insider’s knowledge of the Brothers is of a piece with his claim to an inside knowledge of his nephew’s private doings. “I know the studying you do in your bedroom,” he tells him, “Damn the studying you do in your bedroom […] Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all? […] O I know the game you are at above in your bedroom. I am not as stupid as I look, I’ll warrant you that.” For the sake of his own dignity – for the sake of his aspirations to the “self-determination” mentioned in the manifesto for the student’s novel – this lower-middle-class speaker has built up an impregnable defence system constructed largely from rhetoric. He is “Rat-brained, cunning, concerned-that-he-should-be-well-thought of. Abounding in pretence, deceit.” One might add: acutely conscious that there are areas of knowledge from which he has been systematically excluded, and which impart power to the initiated; eager that he should be thought to have “special” access to these areas. He knows what goes on when a student claims to be “studying,” and he knows the inner workings of the church hierarchy. He seeks additional stakes in ruling-class culture by joining an amateur operatic society that performs the work of those representative Imperial Englishmen, Gilbert and Sullivan. His part in their work requires that he wear a papier-maché replica of a policeman’s hat, marking him out as an eager mimic of Ireland’s former “landlords.” Not surprisingly, then, at the beginning of the novel the student-novelist sees him as the would-be tyrant of his household, an enemy determined to gain control over him by every means at the disposal of his devious rat brain.

But by the end the uncle has been reduced to the status of a comic entertainer – the stage Irishman who is O’Nolan’s pet hate and who hovers at the wings of every passage he writes. He is no longer the enemy; when the student passes his exams the uncle presents him with a second hand gold watch in token of his admission into the work schedule of the nation, of which the uncle himself is part. The enemy is the system that sets one class at odds with another in the same society, in the same family even, using knowledge as its instrument. The enemy, that is, is the class system, an import equally from England and from Rome. And by the end of At Swim-Two-Birds the malevolent machinery of that system stands poised and ready to consume the student-novelist and his reader as they reach the closing pages of the book.

The transmutation of knowledge-acquisition in At Swim-Two-Birds from an amicably democratic occupation to a power-struggle, a war, may be traced by glancing at the beginning and the end of the novel. In keeping with the manifesto’s statement that the modern novel should be a work of reference, a sort of encyclopaedia, At Swim-Two-Birds is interspersed with leaves from an actual encyclopaedia that stands in the student-novelist’s bedroom. It’s a Conspectus of the Arts and Natural Sciences, published in forty buckskin volumes in 1854 by a “reputable Bath house for a guinea the volume.” The volumes “bore their years bravely,” we are told, and “retained in their interior the kindly seed of knowledge intact and without decay.” The Conspectus is a democratic project: it exists to make specialist information available to the curious general reader, regardless of social status or education. Accordingly, in the novel written by the student, knowledge would indeed seem at times to be both kindly and freely available. It is bestowed, for instance, in cornucopian abundance on the rebel characters when one of their number takes over Trellis’s narrative, so that they speak in tongues, as it were, on topics as diverse as the colloquial names for chemical elements, the camel’s inability to swim and the correct way to read your gas metre. But at the time they obtain this wealth of knowledge they are also engaged in less attractive pursuits; above all, in subjecting their author Trellis to unspeakable agonies through the disinterested agency of the Pooka MacPhellimey. And the Pooka, too, possesses an abundance of arcane knowledge, which he applies to Trellis with far-from-pleasant consequences:

A number of miracles were wrought as one and together […] Leaden-hard forked arteries ran speedily about his scalp, his eye-beads bled and the corrugations of boils and piteous tumuli which appeared upon the large of his back gave it the appearance of a valuable studded shield and could be ascertained on counting to be sixty-four in number […] In addition to his person, his room was also the subject of mutations unexplained by any purely physical hypothesis and not to be accounted for by mechanical devices relating to the manipulation of guy-ropes, pulley-blocks, or mechanical collapsible wallsteads of German manufacture, nor did the movements of the room conform to any known laws relating to the behaviour of projectiles as ascertained by a study of gravitation enforced by calculations based on the postulata of the science of ballistics […] A clock could be heard incessantly reciting the hours, a token that the free flight of time had also been interfered with; while the mumbling of the Pooka at his hell-prayers and the screaming of the sufferer, these were other noises perceptible to the practised ear.

Half a dozen academic discourses dependent on precision are at work in this passage: the Catholic theologian’s painstaking notation of miracles; the archaeologist’s eye, which appraises the author’s boil-encrusted back in the light of excavations of pre-Christian tumuli; the mathematician’s fondness for numbers and geometrical patterns; the engineer’s pleasure in mechanics and the physicist’s in disruptions in the space-time continuum; the poet’s delight in perfectly rhythmic speech. And all this in the service of quasi-inquisitorial excruciation. The possessor of knowledge, the Pooka, first appoints himself judge, prosecution, jury and executioner, then applies all the weight of his learning to the end of putting the screws on his chosen victim.

We have entered territory, in fact, which will be explored more thoroughly in The Third Policeman. The pattern is one we shall see repeated in an extraordinary range of O’Nolan’s writings. In the trial scene towards the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, for instance, the author Trellis is arraigned by a panel of judges who are his known enemies – the characters in his novel. The courtroom itself is a former music-hall which has been converted to a cinema and is now a bar, both legal and licensed (all the judges have pints of porter in their fists). These many functions for a single space should alert us to something else that is always happening in O’Nolan’s writing: people are always being judged and convicted in every social space in Ireland, from street to pub to church to schoolroom to bed-chamber. The conviction is always a foregone conclusion, and the laws of physics, of nature, of history, of the nation, and of the divinity will be freely transgressed in order to bring that conviction about. When you think about it, a conviction or legal sentence is a kind of punch-line, and all O’Nolan’s characters will violate any principle in order to end an anecdote with style. And the more you read O’Nolan, the more terrible this comic inevitability becomes. One is tempted to say that for him the comic narrative, the shaggy dog story, the anecdote with the devastating punch-line that unleashes a burst of agonized laughter, is the exact model for what was happening to Ireland and to Europe as the 1930s deteriorated into war.

In At Swim-Two-Birds the inevitable fate of the author is postponed by the act of fate we encountered earlier, when his servant Teresa burns the pages of his novel that give life to his antagonists, the characters who are about to sentence him to death. His legal sentence is commuted to a conversational sentence, a feeble bit of wordplay, which the battered author delivers when he has returned to his house and is following Teresa upstairs, observing the motion of her buttocks – decently concealed beneath her skirt – as he goes: “Ars est celare artem, muttered Trellis, doubtful as to whether he had made a pun.” As he returns to his bedroom the power structure reverts to its pre-revolutionary state, with the author supine on his bed manipulating his characters and fooling his readers as he has always done, a perfect imitation of the social hegemony at work, the art of its power foxily concealed from view. We have assisted at the birth of an encyclopaedia, a circle of knowledge, which has now been transformed from the promise of infinite freedom that it held at the beginning of the book to an elaborate trap. And this is the third characteristic O’Nolan ascribes to 1930s Ireland. Urbanity is the first; an obsession with knowledge is the second. The third is entrapment.

Trapped! You see a bore coming down the street – you make evasive manoeuvres – they are half-hearted ones because you know he has spotted you and is bearing down like a heat-seeking missile. And now you are subject to the anecdote: the unloading of a mass of worthless information with just one end – to astonish, to perplex, to invoke reluctant admiration, to establish the superiority of the bore regardless of all outward and visible signs of his commonplace condition. The punch-line is the sprung trap that awaits you at the end of the anecdote, the confirmation of the bore’s victory, and you will seek every means to identify its whereabouts and to shield yourself against its approach. Yet your efforts to protect yourself will always fail, because the bore holds all the cards, you cannot possibly second-guess the tortuous racking to which he will subject language, history, space and time in order to spring his surprise. The punch-line is the ultimate form of occult knowledge, and the best thief in the world is unable either to wrest the secret of it from the narrator who plans to deliver it – or to divert the narrator from his purpose of giving it vent.

This is especially the case with Keats and Chapman, protagonists of a series of shaggy dog stories O’Nolan unfolded in his daily column in the Irish Times. Each story culminates in one of Keats’s abominable puns, often achieved at the cost of appalling physical pain to some unfortunate innocent – usually his unhappy friend Chapman. On one occasion the schoolboy Chapman is glued to the back of his head teacher, solely in order that Keats can say “I like a man that sticks to his principals.” On another he is chewed and mashed by a steel rolling mill in the interests of allowing Keats to observe that he has “been through the mill.” On a third, a man suffers from intolerable adenoidal agonies after an amateur operation performed by Chapman, which leaves the patient with a surgical instrument embedded in his sinuses for more than a week, merely as a pretext for Keats to state at the end of it all: “He had it up his nose for you a long time.” In each of these episodes, elaborate, weighty machinery is set in motion, narratives of an epic length and complexity are unfolded (remember that Keats and Chapman are associated with an Irish epic, the works of Homer), and the material world is disjointed and stretched beyond the limits of its capacity, all in the interest of a jeu de mots the most appropriate response to which is a scream of derision or torment. In this sense, At Swim-Two-Birds is a Keats and Chapman anecdote, the victim of its violence being the author Trellis. Here for once the victim is allowed to have the punch-line (except of course that Trellis is the most tyrannical anecdotalist of all, the novelist, as well as the novel’s victim). But in most of O’Nolan’s anecdotes the victim of physical violence is made the helpless subject of the climactic pun: like the stranger who is murdered, dissolved in an acid bath, then drunk by Chapman cup by cup, solely in order that Keats’s friend might claim that he has drunk the fellow under the table.

Here the anecdote is relatively innocent, if nasty. But there are times when O’Nolan’s anecdotes are not just nasty but horrible, straying into uncharted regions of poor taste.

One example is the Keats and Chapman story where the unfortunate pair are caught in the blast of an American atomic bomb, whose most freakish effect is to “blow the backs off several humans, leaving them alive, conscious, and otherwise intact.” Keats is one of these unfortunates, and the ensuing search for his own missing part among heaps of bleeding backs while uttering terrible threats of vengeance is driven solely by O’Nolan’s need to vent himself of the final line: “‘I’m going to get my own back,’ Keats said savagely, turning over nearby fleshes.’” “Savagely” is just the right word: the comic has seldom got much closer than this to the monstrously mundane logic of the War Room (the anecdote was published in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

But perhaps the most calculatedly offensive of O’Nolan’s anecdotes is “The Martyr’s Crown,” a short story cited by Frank O’Connor as symptomatic of the degenerate state of Irish writing in the 1930s. In it the fight for independence, the heroic deeds of the Irish resistance and the sacrifices of the men and women who helped them in their struggle against the British are enlisted as components of a squalid tale narrated by the most outrageous of O’Nolan’s self-promoters. The narrator is a man called Toole, whose yearning to be an “insider” has reached unprecedented intensity, and who satisfies it by hailing eminent passers-by as if they were his closest friends, thus startling them into acknowledging his cheerful greetings despite the fact that they do not know him from Adam. Toole then turns to any given walking-companion who has witnessed the incident and proceeds to back up his claim to the passer-by’s acquaintance with some elaborate story concerning their mutual adventures. In one case, an elegant young man has the poise to ignore Toole’s greeting with a devastating display of frostiness, and Toole is stung into inventing an unusually elaborate story to explain the youth’s indifference. It’s a tale that includes a bloody ambush (once again featuring explosives – “a class of a home-made bomb that Bart used to make in his own kitchen”), a massacre of the British military (“there was no heads left on some of them”), and an Irishwoman who sleeps with a British captain to save the resistance fighters hiding in her house – all in the interest of providing Toole with the most explosive of punchlines. Of course the young man is proud, the anecdotalist declares triumphantly; too proud to acknowledge his humbler acquaintances. He is the offspring of the union between the patriotic Irishwoman and the British captain. “For seven hundred years,” Toole goes on, “thousands – no, I’ll make it millions – of Irish men and women have died for Ireland […] But that young man was born for Ireland. There was never anybody else like him. Why wouldn’t he be proud?” In “The Martyr’s Crown,” in other words, Ireland’s bloody history serves as raw material for an elaborate rhetorical scheme for fleeting self-promotion on the part of a nobody. The hopes and high ambitions entertained by the Irish freedom fighters have been reduced to this: and if O’Connor was disgusted by O’Nolan’s willingness to transform an epic struggle into a joke, this was clearly just the reaction O’Nolan was looking for. The apt response to Toole’s punchline is a shriek of mingled laughter and derision both shriller and more unnerving than anything elicited by the various lives of Keats and Chapman. And a more muted shriek might be an apt response to the collective political and economic disappointments suffered by the partitioned Irish people in the early years of independence.

All the characteristics of O’Nolan’s writing I’ve discussed so far find their funniest and most appalling manifestations in The Third Policeman. The book is an anecdote told by a bore – a nameless first-person narrator obsessed with the work of an insane philosopher called de Selby. And it’s populated by many additional raconteurs, each of whom is as willing as the narrator to twist the geometries of space, time, and reason in their efforts to arrive at the punch-line they desire. Unlike O’Nolan’s other texts, however, this anecdote goes on interminably beyond the punch-line, and is located in an infernal Ireland where every verbal coup is a body-blow, calling forth ever more horrified cries of astonishment on the part of the narrator, until he observes that such cries have become “almost a habit with me.” In this place as in all of O’Nolan’s Irelands people are constantly being judged and sentenced without due process (there is “no trial or preliminary proceedings, no caution administered and no hearing before a Commissioner of the Public Peace”). And the sentence passed on the narrator himself – as in At Swim-Two-Birds – is death. But here the irrational system that sentences the narrator to death has everyone in its grip. Everyone is either criminal or policeman or both, and is governed by an arcane set of rules which however arbitrary are finally inescapable, even if nobody knows them. Or rather, the rules are eminently escapable; they can always be circumvented, but only apparently and temporarily before reasserting themselves in the most unexpected and disturbing manner possible, like the pun at the end of a Keats and Chapman story. When the narrator hears in the middle of the book that he’s to be hanged for a murder nobody knows he has committed, he cries out in consternation: “Is this all a joke for entertainment purposes?” To this his accuser and would-be executioner, Sergeant Pluck, replies with warmth: “If you take it that way I will be indefinitely beholden to you.” The book as a whole is only a joke if it is taken that way – just as the outbreak of war may only be taken as a joke if you set aside your humanity and all your moral convictions. In this novel the fear of death is never alleviated, the inevitability of the death sentence never questioned; the narrator is locked into the ultimate tyranny, and the sense of entrapment his story generates is only intensified by the supreme civility with which all the characters behave towards one another, the sincerity with which they comfort their victims in the face of approaching doom.

The worst thing about this comic narrative is that it documents a self-imposed tyranny, a self-sprung trap. Like O’Nolan’s other protagonists the narrator is a seeker after knowledge for his own private advancement; and his quest to make his name through knowledge leads to murder. He kills an elderly man called Mathers for the sake of his money, which he needs to finance the publication of his definitive index to the works of de Selby. And this murder for the sake of knowledge precipitates him into the nightmare world of the three policemen of the title; an idyllic rural landscape dominated by a monstrously crooked police station, centre of operations for Sergeant Pluck and his strange and eloquent colleagues. The narrator goes to the station in his quest for Mathers’s vanished millions, voluntarily delivering himself into the hands of the law when he discovers that the cash is not where he expects to find it. The police, he thinks, will direct him to what he feels is his by right – even if his right to the old man’s cash was obtained through manslaughter. And as if in response to his distorted sense of values, he finds himself in a land where all laws are distorted – even the law of perspective; where a man’s own point of view shapes what he sees (hence the emphasis throughout on the eyes of the different characters); and where the unspoken first and second rules of wisdom that obtain in all of O’Nolan’s works have been adopted by the first policeman he meets as a universal guiding principle. “Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any,” Sergeant Pluck tells him, and “Turn everything you hear to your own advantage.” The latter rule is the narrator’s downfall. When Pluck’s superior, the angry Inspector O’Corky, appears at the station to ask why no action has been taken to find old Mathers’s murderer, Pluck instantly replies that the murderer has been apprehended and is currently awaiting execution. The narrator quickly realizes that he himself is the criminal in question; that he has been identified as the killer regardless of the absence of evidence against him, and that he is to be sacrificed for Pluck’s private purposes, summarily despatched to protect the sergeant from a petty reprimand. Pettiness, parochialism and egomania not only dominate this nightmare Ireland but kill people in it, as if to demonstrate the nation’s unwitting complicity in the atrocities being perpetrated elsewhere in Europe. And despite the arbitrariness of Pluck’s sentence, despite the cheerful despotism it springs from, the narrator can hardly deny in his soul that he thoroughly deserves it, and that he has sought it out with all the tenacity of a detective following the trail of clues he has left behind for his own incrimination.

This self-destructive urge in the narrator – the urge that takes him directly to a police station after he has committed a murder – is part of a tendency to self-destruction that seems inherent in every detail of O’Nolan’s narrative. The rich stock of knowledge it contains – the arcane knowledge purveyed by Policemen MacCruiskeen and Fox as well as by Sergeant Pluck and the narrator himself – tends towards one end only: a great big bang; and the novel itself may aptly be described as an infernal machine, a time-bomb that has already gone off by the time the reader discovers its nature. This aspect of the book is best considered by way of its treatment of boxes. The object for which the narrator commits his murder is a black metal cashbox containing the legendary fortune of old man Mathers. While the narrator is murdering Mathers with his spade, his accomplice Divney conceals the box in the old man’s house, and later sends the narrator to collect it from its hiding place. In the meantime Divney has replaced the cash with an explosive device, and we learn at the end of the novel that the cashbox blew up as soon as the narrator touched it, killing him and demolishing the building. As a result, most of the narrator’s adventures in the novel are posthumous ones. For the narrator, however, at the instant of detonation the cashbox simply disappears; and as far as he is concerned, his adventures are no more than an extended search for the object of his murderous desires. It’s therefore only fitting that from the moment of the cashbox’s disappearance the book should be filled with boxes like the one he’s obsessed with: from the nest of impossible containers constructed by Policeman MacCruiskeen – a pointless labour of love like the narrator’s index to the works of de Selby – to the black boxes with coloured wires coming out of them which MacCruiskeen uses to manufacture light out of noise; from the boxes of peat being cut out of the soil by labourers near the police station to the narrator’s many accounts of de Selby’s mysterious “water box” and MacCruiskeen’s inaudible music box with the knobs on. The brain is a box, as Sergeant Pluck reminds the narrator, and so is the coffin that is constructed to receive the narrator’s body after his execution. At one point the narrator finds himself locked in an “iron box” or elevator with a sixteen stone policeman, descending to an underground region where the obscure mechanisms that control the sunlit world above their heads appear to be located. This underground region, too, is full of boxes, from cubical compartments containing anything you ask for, to biscuit-boxes of indescribable shape and colour that tumble from a chute. And the majority of the boxes that fill the book are deadly. The boxes with coloured wires, for instance, which compress ordinary daytime sounds into electric light, are a disaster waiting to happen. Somewhere in their interiors lurks the dreadful noise of a quarry, a cacophony collected by the policemen during the previous summer as fuel for the dark winter evenings; and when this is compressed, MacCruiskeen tells the narrator, everyone in the vicinity will be blinded. The elevator will kill its occupants if they change weight at all during their subterranean visit. The nest of boxes will drive their contemplator mad if thought about for too long. And on the mantelpiece of MacCruiskeen’s room there is a little box that has already driven two men mad: they lost their wits when they examined its interior. Light-, heat- and sound- producing boxes in this novel are dangerously volatile containers – like the “box” that is the brain; and the whole novel trembles with the anticipation of their eventual detonation.

Over and above the boxes, the world the narrator finds himself in after his death is a peculiarly artificial one. Like the technologies and industries of the twentieth century it is driven by elaborate mechanisms: from parts of the human body, such as old man Mathers’ robotic eyes, or Policeman Fox’s face which is “red and gross as if gallons of hot thick blood had been pumped into it,” or Divney’s jaws, which “clicked a few times like a machine,” to the earth itself, which resembles a giant power-plant driven by subterranean engines. As the narrator approaches the entrance to the underground engine-room with Sergeant Pluck he observes that “The world rang in my ear like a great workshop. Sublime feats of mechanics and chemistry were evident on every side.” Metaphors of mechanism are everywhere; from the “mechanical task” the narrator sets himself of finding the black box, to the description of his response to an unexpected encounter with the reanimated corpse of the man he has murdered: “Words spilled out of me as if they were produced by machinery;” from Pluck’s description of the law as “an extremely intricate phenomenon,” to MacCruiskeen’s account of a retractable pencil as “an intricate article full of machinery and a Present from Southport.” And much of this machinery, like the boxes, is potentially deadly. On meeting a fellow murderer called Martin Finnucane early in the book, the narrator learns that life itself is “a queer contraption, very dangerous, a certain death-trap.” And that is just how it turns out for the narrator, who lives always on the verge of a cataclysm that has always already happened. The policemen in their station are constantly preoccupied with the difficult task of keeping the figures on some obscure device in the underground region poised in delicate equilibrium; should they fail in this task, the implication is, chaos will be unleashed and the world will end. As Sergeant Pluck prepares the scaffold for the narrator’s execution the young man watches him “patiently and politely arranging the mechanics of my death.” Later, when the narrator encounters Policeman Fox and learns that he invented the underground region as a ponderous prank, a practical joke at the expense of his colleagues, he loftily dismisses him as an oaf whose mind had been “fed upon adventure books of small boys, books in which every extravagance was mechanical and lethal and solely concerned with bringing about somebody’s death in the most elaborate way imaginable” – books, that is, like the Sexton Blake adventures O’Nolan himself may have written. But of course this is also a perfectly accurate description of the book in which the narrator finds himself. Any more elaborate literary mechanism for accomplishing death could hardly have been contrived by the most devious deviser of detective thrillers. And lethal mechanical extravagances were also of course a feature of the age of war in which The Third Policeman was composed.

O’Nolan’s novel is built into its time, entrapped by it, caught up in its interior workings. As many commentators have noted, the book is full of references to that most deadly and imaginatively stimulating of all energy sources, atomic energy. Sergeant Pluck expounds his own absurd atomic theory to the writer, which involves the exchange of atoms between the bodies of cyclists and the machines they ride, a process that fuses humans with the tools they have made to serve them. And later, Policeman MacCruiskeen discloses the existence of a substance called omnium, which is a fantastically potent version of sub-atomic matter. As MacCruiskeen puts it, “Omnium is the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the root of the kernel of everything and it is always the same,” and anyone who possesses omnium can do anything, transforming any kind of matter to an infinite range of new and astonishing shapes in a trice, on a moment’s whim. This is what Policeman Fox does when he fabricates the underground region out of a lump of omnium he finds in Mathers’s cashbox. Atomic theory and the theory of relativity – which destabilize the laws of time and space as radically as Pluck, Fox and MacCruiskeen do – are for many people the most “modern” of all forms of scientific knowledge; they were born with the twentieth century and dominated the military and political minds of that century from beginning to end. Both areas of knowledge seemed at the beginning of the century to hold the seed of utopian planetary transformations; both were involved in producing instead the most devastating of weapons, the atomic bomb (or as O’Nolan christened it in 1945, the “abombic tomb”). The presence of atomic theory in O’Nolan’s book, then, links the local crises of the newly-fledged Irish nation with the deepening global crisis at the end of the 1930s in a way that predicts the worst outcome for both. And there is no doubt that O’Nolan could have known about both the best and the worst contemporary predictions for the future as it would be shaped by human interference with the atom.

As early as 1914, H. G. Wells wrote a novel describing both the immense powers for utopian transformation inherent in the atom and the infinite potential for destruction it contained. The World Set Free gives an account of the first nuclear war, in which half-crazed aeronauts hurl bombs from the cockpits of their monoplanes and perish triumphantly in the ensuing conflagration. And a single passage from the beginning of Wells’s novel would have been enough, I think, to have conjured the genially monstrous minds of Pluck, Fox and MacCruiskeen from O’Nolan’s imagination. Here is the passage, from the speech of a Scottish professor named Rufus, an enthusiast for atomic energy:

we know now that the atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible and final and – lifeless – lifeless, is really a reservoir of immense energy. That is the most wonderful thing about all this work. A little while ago we thought of the atoms as we thought of bricks, as solid building material, as substantial matter, as unit masses of lifeless stuff, and behold! These bricks are boxes, treasure boxes, boxes full of the intensest force. This little bottle contains about a pint of uranium oxide; that is to say about fourteen ounces of the element uranium. It is worth about a pound. And in this bottle, ladies and gentlemen, in the atoms in this bottle slumbers at least as much energy as we could get by burning a hundred and sixty tons of coal. If at a word, in one instant I could suddenly release that energy here and now it would blow us and everything about us to fragments; if I could turn it into the machinery that lights this city, it could keep Edinburgh brightly lit for a week. But at present no man knows, no man has an inkling of how this little lump of stuff can be made to hasten the release of its store…

In The Third Policeman Rufus’ treasure boxes have become a black cashbox, the boxes that can light a city have been perfected, and boxes that release energy little by little exist side by side with boxes that demolish buildings in an explosive instant. Indeed, the passage helps to explain something puzzling about O’Nolan’s novel: which is why a story about death should hum and seethe as it does with the sheer overwhelming energy of the world, its teeming vitality, the life in its every particle. Life and death cohabit in O’Nolan’s Ireland, as they do in Rufus’ atoms, in terrifyingly unstable proximity, ready to set each other off in a vast explosion that will obliterate his little nation and the rest of Europe with it. And the little black boxes that contain these explosive elements are in the hands of madmen and obsessives.

The Third Policeman contains O’Nolan’s most potent bombshells, packed to the skin with comic and tragic elements in equal measure. It is, as I’ve said, an infernal machine, an incendiary device – or perhaps a diagram of the infernal machine that is Europe in the mid-twentieth century. At one point in the book, as he stands on the scaffold beside the writer he is about to hang, Sergeant Pluck tells a story about Ireland’s willingness to seek knowledge through violence. It concerns a man who visits the clouds in a balloon, and is almost lynched when he comes back because he refuses to answer questions about his visit. “That is a nice piece of law and order for you,” says Pluck, shaking his head over the narrowly-averted lynching: “a terrific indictment of democratic self-government, a beautiful commentary on Home Rule.” A little later we learn, in one of the novel’s anarchic footnotes, about the murderous proclivities of commentators on the philosopher-scientist de Selby – something we already know about from the actions of the novel’s protagonist. Exasperated by verbal attacks on his idol de Selby, one commentator – Hatchjaw – sets out for mainland Europe to confront the sage’s chief detractor, a “shadowy” German scholar named Kraus. Hatchjaw is armed, among other things, with “explosive chemicals and the unassembled components of several bombs, grenades and landmines” with which he plans to unleash a “cataclysm” to consume both the German and himself. In each case – the lynching and the cataclysm – violence is narrowly averted. But the point of O’Nolan’s narrative is that all the ingenious trickery and extravagant rhetoric in the world will not finally avert further violence when once it has been accepted and engaged in as a modus operandi – by an individual, a nation or a continent. And the novel’s punch-line involves the retrospective discovery that further violence has not been averted, despite all the twists and turns of the narrator in his efforts to stave it off…

O’Nolan could not have predicted exactly how knowledge-driven violence would manifest itself in the later years of the Second World War. Still less could he have predicted how misinformation and weapons of mass destruction would continue to dominate global politics in the twenty-first century. But if his writings of the 1930s and 40s are undoubtedly the products of an astute analysis of his own place and time, they nevertheless continue to have a shocking applicability to our own disordered decade, here in the 2010s. His jokes cannot be safely contained within the confines of his lifetime, any more than radioactive matter can be safely contained within the slender leaves of a comic novel. They – his jokes, that is – are still very much on us.