The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"[...] the savant spent several months trying to discover a satisfactory method of 'diluting' water, holding that it was 'too strong' [...]"
At my age there exists no greater pleasure in life - other than eating chocolate, of course - than finding a book that is so stunning in its arrogant and confident uniqueness that it takes one's breath away with its sheer audacity. And as a matter of fact the pleasure of finding a book that totally defies expectations lasts longer than chocolate, not to mention the fewer calories it packs. I have just found such an epitome of literary surprise in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (written in 1940, but not published until 1976). This is also the second funniest book I have devoured in the 60 years of my reading adventures. Only Śledź Otrembus Podgrobelski's Introduction to Imaginescopy, which has not yet been translated from Polish to English - and is most likely untranslatable - might be more hilarious.
In fact the two works do share some similarities: while Śledź's book is a scientific treatise on imaginescopes, devices that consist of a hole enclosed by any substance and used to expand human imagination, Policeman - in addition to the narrative layer - is an exposition of theories of a certain De Selby. Among other findings De Selby demonstrates that there is no such thing as motion (which can easily be proved by looking at any photograph), posits that nights are just concentrations of "dark air" that possibly could be bottled and stored for later use, and that the earth is sausage-shaped. (Here I must disagree: after years of working the math - the subject that I teach on university level - I had shown that the earth is a torus, a donut-shaped object. Alas, because of senility, I have forgotten my clever proof.) Yet De Selby's most comforting discovery is that death does not exist and is just an illusion. Of course, each comfort has its price: De Selby proves that life does not exist either but one has to agree that non-existence is a reasonable price to pay for immortality.
The plot is deliciously and totally demented as well: the nameless narrator (his soul is called Joe, though), orphaned early and raised in a boarding school, gets hold of one of De Selby's books. He acquires an obsession to commentate all works by the author and produce a definitive De Selby Index. Lacking financial means for the research he murders a wealthy man to steal his money. However, the dead man's money is not that easy to find and the narrator attempts to enlist the police to help him find the hidden cash. The policemen, though, are not your usual cops: they are only interested in human-bicycle relationships and in fact function under the assumption that bicycles and people contain interchangeable parts, which eventually allows them to merge into one entity.
This is just the beginning of strange occurrences - I will not take away the reader's pleasure to discover the demented things that happen next. Let me just mention that we have a tactfully depicted sex scene between a man and a female bicycle. We also meet a box-making craftsman who - having perfected his manual skills so much that he builds boxes small enough to be invisible even under a microscope - eventually manages to build a box half as small. Can you imagine that? Half as small! And what about the posse of fourteen one-legged men who tie themselves in pairs?
While not all passages in the novel are equally riveting I can reiterate with full confidence that this is the funniest book in English language that I have ever read. I hypothesize that it might be the funniest book in English ever written, at least until I read the same author's At Swim-Two-Birds.
Four-and-a-half stars and - gasp! - I am rounding my rating up! My first five-star book in almost half a year and 50 books.
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