Friday, April 19Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

The Third Policeman Review: An Insoluble Pancake

You know when a little kid tries to explain something scientific even though they have no clue what they’re talking about so they start spouting absolute bullshit? ‘The Third Policeman’ is that conversation on steroids. The novel, published posthumously by Flann O’Brien, is stocked full of complete and utter nonsense. That being said, it is one of the most fantastical novels I’ve ever read and I cannot recommend it enough. 

‘The Third Policeman’ is, by its own definition, “nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter”. The storyline, which is semi-impossible to understand, follows O’Brien’s unnamed protagonist (but who for convenience names his own soul ‘Joe’) through a cyclic hell following his death. The novel is stocked full with eccentric characters that consistently draw attention away from the so-called (yet ironically unnamed) protagonist. Reading it, you too are thrown into this cyclic, inescapable hell and its borderline intolerable number of references to bicycles. 

The novel juxtaposes the rational with the irrational. There was no point where I was not slightly confused – but I suppose that is the point. O’Brien tries to replicate what I assume a stroke would feel like. At certain points, there’s a hint of logic and for a split second the novel makes sense. And then O’Brien whips out these one liners – “it is one of the most compressed and intricate pancakes I have ever known” – and you’re once again left in the dark. This confusion is partially caused by the insertion of random words for another, such as “pancakes”, which creates a sort of brain damage feeling for both the narrator who is using “pancake” as a filler word and for readers who have to solve this equation. The novel is undeniably challenging, but if you stick it out, the rewards are worth it.

Despite linguistically being all over the place, ‘The Third Policeman’ is undeniably funny. From the two policemen obsessed with bicycles to judicial weighing scales being an elevator, the novel is consistent in its subversion of the expected. Through this subversion, O’Brien successfully finds the balance between the absurd and logical: 

“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.”

While the novel feigns inaccessibility through its absurdity, ‘The Third Policeman’ is, at its core, a moral tale. As the reader, you’re along for this journey, even if you don’t know where you’ll end up. It will leave you pondering whether the novel was moronic or genius, whether it was absolute bullshit or you were just too dumb to realise its brilliance. ‘“Your talk,” I said, “is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand.”’