The Third Policeman

Selected by Anne Enright

Flann O’Brien’s first book, At Swim-Two-Birds, sold very few copies before Longman’s warehouse, and with it all remaining stock of the book, was burnt down by the Luftwaffe in 1940. It had been, however, published in London, and this was enough to alert the lags of the Palace Bar to the idea that O’Brien was a ‘coming man’ of the literary scene over which they presided. Many of these drinkers worked for The Irish Times: Bertie Smyllie was editor, Austin Clarke chief poetry reviewer, and Pussy O’Mahony ruled the advertising section. Their conversation, according to Patrick Kavanagh, was on such significant matters as George Moore’s use of the semi-colon and what English journals paid for book reviews.

When O’Brien’s second novel, The Third Policeman, was turned down by Longman for being more fantastical than his first, he could not face Dublin opinion and put it about that the manuscript had been blown out of the boot of his car, page by page, on a long trip to Donegal. The book, published a year after his death, was not only hailed as important in some way or other, even described as “the first postmodernist text”, it also makes people laugh out loud on public transport and on beaches and in their beds. In the literary world, a book is a failure if you say it is a failure, and some books are a success because they are declared a success, and time is a great wind, that blows our words into a future we cannot know.

About Anne Enright

Anne Enright has written five novels and two collections of short stories. She is also an essayist and critic. Never rejected by a publisher, her fiction has won various prizes, and she has two children of whom she is inordinately proud. What might be called a fruitful life, however, is experienced as an endless series of small failures. If you get nothing done all day, every day, she says, at the end of two years, you will have written your book.