O’Brien’s ear for Dublin speech is used to great effect in this novel as well as in his newspaper column. Not only does he have great sensitivity to a particular kind of speech, he also has a great affinity for a certain kind of intellect, one which is second rate, inferior but not downright stupid. Consider this exchange on the nature of death:
“… Death by fire, you know, by God it’s no joke.
They tell me drowning is worse, Lamont said.
Do you know what it is, said Furriskey, you can drown me three times before you
roast me. Yes, by God and six. Put your finger in a basin of water. What do you feel?
Next to nothing. But put your finger in the fire!”
These characters firmly and solemnly believe in old wives’ tales and conventional wisdom, their tastes are solidly low brow, their opinions always resoundingly affirmed by their friends, with never a critical note to spoil the harmony. They are serene in their good opinions of themselves as “decent skins.” While helping (actually hindering) an author (Orlick) to write a book they pause to survey their work so far:
“Do you know we’re doing well. We’re doing very well.”
Repetition accompanies nearly everything they say. When Shanahan takes offence at being described by Orlick as a “raconteur” Furriskey explains:
“What’s wrong with you man, he asked. What’s the matter? Isn’t it all right? Isn’t it
high praise? Do you know the meaning of that last word?
It’s from the French, of course, said Shanahan.
Then I’ll tell you what it means. It means you’re all right. Do you understand me? I’ve
met this man. I know him. I think he’s all right. Do you see it now?”
And yet despite their love of Jem Casey for his unpretentious “pomes,” they do not regard themselves as average people, but are convinced they possess great artistic sensitivity. Discussing the book they are collaborating on with Orlick, Shanahan says:
“… you have to remember the man in the street. I may understand you, Mr Lamont
may understand you, Mr Furriskey may understand you – but the man in the street?
Oh, by God you have to go very very slow if you want him to follow you.”
This brief sketch can only give a faint idea of the book. When asked what War and Peace was about Tolstoy replied that to explain it he would have to read the whole thing out. Much the same could be said of At Swim-Two-Birds.
The Third Policeman
The Third Policeman, O’Brien’s second novel in English, was not published until after his death. It was rejected by one publisher during his lifetime and O’Brien, a very shy man, never tried to publish it elsewhere, even telling friends that he had lost the manuscript. He later reworked parts of it into The Dalkey Archive. In a letter to William Saroyan he wrote “it is supposed to be a funny book but I don’t know about that…” Certainly it does not have the hilarity of At Swim or some of his newspaper columns. It stri
kes out in a different direction and does not rely so much on Dublin speech patterns, though there are the occasional hints of Cruiskeen Lawn in the narrator’s dialogue with his own conscience (whom he names Joe).
The Third Policeman is also a very unusual book, but where At Swim plays with narrative, it tends towards pure fantasy. (Though this is not to say that The Third Policeman is without surprises in that department too.) It contains exchanges to baffle any translator, such as, “’What is your cog?’ ‘My cog?’ ‘You surmoun’,” and puzzles like “’This is not today, this is yesterday’.” It is the story, told in the first person, of a murderer and his attempts to get his hands on the money for which he killed a neighbour, Phillip Mathers. The narrator, though he is just three hours walk from his home, finds himself in a very strange and unfamiliar part of the world, dealing with bicycles that turn into people, bands of one-legged men, and three policemen of monstrous proportions.
Play with proportions and perspectives comes up again and again in the book. For instance, when the narrator enters Mathers’s house it is through a window which seemed too small for him, and across an extraordinarily deep window sill. Another house he encounters has no breadth or depth. Elsewhere the narrator looks at thirteen chests, each identical but smaller than the next and says: “they looked to me as if they were all the same size but invested with some crazy perspective.” Policeman MacCruiskeen has a mangle which converts light into sound by stretching the light out of its normal proportions. At another point the narrator says he weighs 500,000 tons, while the sergeant’s bike seems small due to its perfect proportions but is actually huge. The narrator finds himself in a place whose dimensions are “most unusual;” the ceiling is “extraordinarily high,” the floor is narrow and the stair steps are square. If At Swim-Two-Birds conflates narrative levels, The Third Policeman conflates dimensions: the Sergeant looks into the middle of the day, which is five miles away.