Critical Context

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The Third Policeman was signed Flann O’Brien, only one of many pen names adopted by an author whose real name was Brian O’Nolan. The novel was written in 1940, rejected by publishers, and put into print only after O’Brien’s death. The author, then, had ample experience in the formation of literary identities and the failures of literary performances, both of which are integral to The Third Policeman.

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O’Brien was Irish, and he grew up in a new republic rife with glorified and self-gratifying notions of national identity—a kind of fiction attacked in this novel’s undermining of any conception of certain identity in a malevolent and insensible world. Modern Irish literature is abundant in pride of place, specificity of realistic locale, and documentary versions of domestic politics and small-town life. Although vaguely Irish in setting and humor, The Third Policeman addresses universal, not provincial, experience, and fantastic, not realistic narration. As such, it is a turning away from the conventions of O’Brien’s national literature toward an intellectual cosmopolitanism.

The Third Policeman might have marked O’Brien’s approach to the most sophisticated kind of modernistic fiction. He might have developed subsequently along the lines of another Irishman of his own age and intellectual sensibility, Samuel Beckett. O’Brien did not, whether by personal misfortune or by dissatisfaction with the new literary absorption in existential angst equal to that of any other philosophy. At the end of his life, O’Brien settled for a gross popularization of the conception of The Third Policeman in a far less provocative novel called The Dalkey Archive (1964).

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