Two years after a friend gave me a copy, I finally got around to reading Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman.’ I liked the part with the bicycles. (Which is to say, pretty much the whole book.) Lots of spoilers below, if you’re afraid of that sort of thing, for a book written around 1940 and published in 1966.
It’s the story of an amateur academic who goes in with his tenant farmer on a murder/robbery. After a couple years, they go to retrieve the hidden loot from the robbery, and our narrator suddenly finds himself in a very strange reality. He forgets his name, and wanders to the local police station to get assistance in finding the black cash box with the money. The police station itself is a strange two-dimensional space. The Sergeant is concerned entirely with helping people recover stolen bicycles (which, it turns out, he has stolen). The second policeman works in a back room, building various wonders, such as a sequence of finely crafted identical chests which fit one inside the other, each smaller than the last, until they become completely invisible to the naked eye. Or a spear so sharp that it pricks your skin from two feet away. At some point, our narrator goes with the policemen on a lift to the afterlife (at first presumed to be heaven, but deep underground), where no ageing occurs and there’s a machine that can produce anything you like, though you can’t leave with its products. Eventually, it’s discovered that the thing is powered by an substance called ‘omnium’ which is the creative juice that makes the universe itself keep universing.
In the end, we discover that the narrator had been killed by his accomplice, and has been wandering around in this dreamlike quasi-hell for some twenty years, stuck in some kind of repetitive loop. O’Brien describes it as a hell in his commentary on the book, which was originally to be titled ‘Hell goes round and round.’
This hell has three principal torments. First and foremost is a state of confusion and forgetfulness, a general inability to understand what’s going on and why. There are the literal authorities (the policemen) who seem to know a bit more of the shape of things, as well as the narrator’s muse, de Selby, a crackpot philosopher whose theories make up about half of the book’s jokes. Both the policemen and de Selby turn out to not actually have that great an understanding of the world, in spite of their positions as authorities. One comes away with the feeling that this first torment isn’t so much a torment as a statement on the way we already go through life: No one really knows what’s going on, though we might figure out a thing or two.
The second torment is a fear of death, which becomes more pronounced as the story moves onward. It’s doubly-ironic in that the narrator has killed a man without much remorse already (why should his life be any more valuable?), and, in fact, the narrator is already dead, so he really doesn’t have much to fear.
The most interesting torment, and the one that takes the most space in the book, is the constant unfulfilled desire for the contents of the black box stolen at the start of the book. It’s initially presumed to contain an untold amount of money, and later revealed to contain four ounces of ‘omnium,’ which allows the possessor to make and do pretty much anything. Meanwhile we’ve met the machine that can create anything, which the narrator uses to produce a giant bag of gold and jewels, which it turns out he can’t take advantage of. The narrator plans to use this fortune to publish a comprehensive volume of commentary on the crackpot de Selby, but his desires are focused almost entirely on the fungible: money, gold, jewels, and omnium. Sure he wants to publish his commentary, but what he’s really after is unlimited power.
So in fact, this is a Buddhist kind of hell. The central torment is desire, and the cyclic and forgetful nature of suffering isn’t so different from the cycle of rebirth at the center of Buddhist thought. There are no Boddhisatvas in O’Brien’s hell, though, or even the fluctuation in position which comes with reincarnation. In the Christian milieu, hell is punishment for a debt which can never be repaid.
It’s also an interesting read coming directly after Mieville’s ‘The City and the City.’ Ghost stories abound with the kinds of adjacent geographies that Mieville’s book is concerned with: Separate, overlapping realities with radically different rules and norms, where intersection is a cause for alarm.