Bicycle Diaries: <i>Is it about a bicycle?</i>

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22.3.07

Is it about a bicycle?

Flann O'Brien's
The Third Policeman

The gross and net result of it is that people who spend most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roads 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 nearly are half people and half bicycles.
So begins a brilliant, surreal novel with an enormous otherworldly policeman explaining his Atomic Theory as it relates to bikes. It's author was born Brian O’Nolan. While his English novels appeared under his pen name, his other novels and newspaper column, appearing from 1940 to 1966, were signed Myles na gCopaleen or Myles na Gopaleen - the second being a phonetic rendering of the first.

The Third Policeman almost didn't get published. O'Brien's publisher, was unhappy with it, advising that: he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so. More rejections followed. He wrote desperately to William Saroyan in September 1940,
I got so sick looking at a ragged […] copy of that story I wrote about the policeman that I flew into a frenzy (the Sweeny kind), put it into a box with 2 short stories and sent the whole lot across the sea to Matson & Duggan.
His American agent ultimately misplaced the only copy of the manuscript. O'Brien began to spread the story that it had been lost completely. He never again offered it to a publisher. So The Third Policeman didn't appear in print until 1967, one year after O'Brien's death.

Later in the novel (Chapter 4), Policeman MacCruiskeen interviews the book's narrator.
Policeman MacCruiskeen put the lamp on the table, shook hands with me and gave me the time of day with great gravity. His voice was high, almost feminine, and he spoke with delicate careful intonation. Then he put the lamp on the counter and surveyed the two of us.

'Is it about a bicycle?' he asked.

'Not that' said the Sergeant. 'This is a private visitor who says he did not arrive in the townland upon a bicycle. He has no personal name at all. His dadda is in far Amurikey.'

'Which of the two Amurikeys?' asked MacCruiskeen.

'The Unified Stations,' said the Sergeant.

'Likely he is rich by now if he is in that quarter,' said MacCruiskeen, 'because there's dollars there, dollars and bucks and nuggets in the ground and any amount of rackets and golf games and musical instruments. It is a free country too by all accounts.'

'Free for all,' said the Sergeant. 'Tell me this,' he said to the policeman, 'Did you take any readings today?'

'I did,' said MacCruiskeen.

'Take out your black book and tell me what it was like a good man,' said the Sergeant. Give me the gist of it till I see what I see,' he added.

MacCruiskeen fished a small black book from his breast pocket.
'Ten point six,' he said.

'Ten point six,' said the Sergeant. 'And what reading did you notice on the beam?'

'Seven point four.'

'How much on the lever?'

'One point five'

There was a pause here. The Sergeant put on an expression of great intricacy as if he were doing far-from-simple sums and calculations in his head. After a time his face cleared and he spoke again to his companion.

'Was there a fall?'

'A heavy fall at half-past three.'

'Very Understandable and commendably satisfactory,' said the Sergeant. 'Your supper is on the hob inside and be sure to stir the milk before you take any of it, the way the rest of us after you will have our share of the fats of it, the health of it.

Policeman MacCruiskeen smiled at the mention of food and went into the back room loosening his belt as he went; after a moment we heard the sounds of coarse slobbering as if he was eating porridge without the assistance of spoon or hand. The Sergeant invited me to sit at the fire in his company and gave me a wrinkled cigarette from his pocket.

'It is a lucky thing for your pop that is situated in Amurikey,' he remarked, 'if it is a thing that he is having trouble with the old teeth. It is very few sicknesses that are not from the teeth.' 'Yes,' I said. I was determined to say as little as possible and these unusual policeman first show their hand. Then I would know how to deal with them.

'Because a man can have more disease and germination in his gob than you'll find in a rat's coat and Amurikey is a country where the population do have grand teeth like shaving lather or like bits of delph when you break a plate.'

'Quite true,' I said.

'Or like eggs under a black crow.'

'Like eggs,' I said.

'Did you ever happen to visit the cinematograph in your travels?'

'Never' I answered humbly, but I believe it is a dark quarter and little can be seen at all except the photographs on the wall'.

'Well it is there you see the fine teeth they do have in Amurikey,' said the Sergeant.

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