Novel realities

Jun 22nd, 2008 | By | Category: Ireland

The approach of the holiday season brings an annual family ritual of buying books. The prospect of a long haul flight restricted the number this year. The short pile on the study floor looks odd.

On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, accompanied byThe Complete Novels of Flann O’Brien. It is O’Brien who will get most attention, not because of literary merit, but because he seems to anticipate the absurdity of much of contemporary life

O’Brien, also known as Myles na gCopaleen, was the pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan, a Dubliner who died in 1966 and who is remembered by some as a serious and even dour character. O’Brien’s description of an encounter with Sergeant Pluck in The Third Policeman has within it a sense of the frustration that arises when dealing with Irish bureaucracy. There is a well-honed skill of ignoring questions, or answering questions that were never asked in the first place (which gives an excuse to post a passage from Chapter 4 of The Third Policeman that was posted here last year)

Is it about a bicycle?” he asked.

His expression when I encountered it was unexpectedly reassuring. His face was gross and far from beautiful but he had modified and assembled his various unpleasant features in some skilful way so that they expressed to me good nature, politeness and infinite patience. In the front of his peaked official cap was an important-looking badge and over it in golden letters was the word SERGEANT. It was Sergeant Pluck himself.

“No,” I answered, stretching forth my hand to lean with it against the counter. The Sergeant looked at me incredulously.

“Are you sure?” he asked.


“Not about a motor-cycle?”


“One with overhead valves and a dynamo for light? Or with racing handle-bars?”


“In that circumstantial eventuality there can be no question of a motor-bicycle,” he said. He looked surprised and puzzled and leaned sideways on the counter on the prop of his left elbow, putting the knuckles of his right hand between his yellow teeth and raising three enormous wrinkles of perplexity on his forehead. I decided now that he was a simple man and that I would have no difficulty in dealing with him exactly as I desired and finding out from him what had happened to the black box. I did not understand clearly the reason for his questions about bicycles but I made up my mind to answer everything carefully, to bide my time and to be cunning in all my dealings with him. He moved away abstractedly, came back and handed me a bundle of differently-coloured papers which looked like application forms for bull-licences and dog-licences and the like.

“It would be no harm if you filled up these forms,” he said. “Tell me,” he continued, “would it be true that you are an itinerant dentist and that you came on a tricycle?”

“It would not,” I replied.

“On a patent tandem?”


“Dentists are an unpredictable coterie of people,” he said. “Do you tell me it was a velocipede or a penny-farthing?”

“I do not,” I said evenly. He gave me a long searching look as if to see whether I was serious in what I was saying, again wrinkling up his brow.

“Then maybe you are no dentist at all,” he said, “but only a man after a dog licence or papers for a bull?”

“I did not say I was a dentist,” I said sharply, “and I did not say anything about a bull.”

The Sergeant looked at me incredulously.

Leave Comment