Life: “A Queer Contraption, Very Dangerous, a Certain Death-trap” (A Passage from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman)

I started Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman yesterday, on the recommendation of a few readers who commented on a post last week. Just a few chapters in, I felt the thrill of really great, strange writing, coupled with the bizarre, almost unwieldy disbelief that I hadn’t read the novel before, or more to the point, and most ashamedly, that it wasn’t even on my radar. I felt a strange antipathy to the name Flann O’Brien whenever I came across it in the past—too close to Flannery O’Connor, if I’m being honest. This is all silly and I’m embarrassed to write it now. Anyway, the novel is amazing so far. Here’s a passage that maybe stands alone. We have the (as yet?) unnamed narrator, his soul (in italics), and an old man (who may or may not be a version of the narrator?):

I smiled at him in good-humoured and said:

‘Tricky-looking man, you are hard to place and it is not easy to guess your station. You seem very contented in one way but then again you do not seem to be satisfied. What is your objection to life?’ 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.’

‘That is a nice way to be talking on this grand lively day,’ I chided, ‘when the sun is roaring in the sky and sending great tidings into our weary bones.’

‘Or like feather-beds,’ he continued, ‘or bread manufactured with powerful steam machinery. Is it life you say? Life?’

Explain the difficulty of life yet stressing its essential sweetness and desirability.

What sweetness?

Flowers in the spring, the glory and fulfilment of human life, bird-song at evening – you know very well what I mean. I am not so sure about the sweetness all the same.

‘It is hard to get the right shape of it,’ I said to the tricky man, ‘or to define life at all but if you identify life with enjoyment I am told that there is a better brand of it in the cities than in the country parts and there is said to be a very superior brand of it to be had in certain parts of France. Did you ever notice that cats have a lot of it in them when they are quite juveniles?’

He was looking in my direction crossly.

‘Is it life? Many a man has spent a hundred years trying to get the dimensions of it and when he understands it at last and entertains the certain pattern of it in his head, by the hokey he takes to his bed and dies! He dies like a poisoned sheepdog. There is nothing so dangerous, you can’t smoke it, nobody will give you tuppence-halfpenny for the half of it and it kills you in the wind-up. It is a queer contraption, very dangerous, a certain death-trap. Life?’

4 thoughts on “Life: “A Queer Contraption, Very Dangerous, a Certain Death-trap” (A Passage from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman)”

  1. This one is kind of a sleeper. I’ve only heard it mentioned once & that by the person who recommended it to me about 4 years ago. Testify!


  2. It’s an awesome delight. I’m surprised you hadn’t read it before; especially since, through Biblioklept, I’ve come across countless writers whom, I’m sure, I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Perhaps there’s a cross-Atlantic divide here. Flann’s a rite of passage in Ireland and the UK; always recommended by friends at school or university. That said, the US Dalkey Archive Press is named after one of his later works and there was a wave of new interest after that bermuda triangle tv programme.

    Everything about you blog is wonderful. Thanks for keeping it going.


    1. Thanks for your kind words, Sharon.

      I think it’s bizarre that The Third Policeman wasn’t on my radar—I mean, it’s the sort of book that I’d expect to have read waaaaay long ago. Maybe it is a US-UK thing…I dunno.


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