Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Sieve: The Third Policeman

The following is an excerpt from Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, a "brilliant comic novel about the nature of time, death, and existence," which I happen to be enjoying rather perversely on this bitterly cold day. The italics indicate what the narrator has dubbed his soul (whom he has named Joe) speaking to him.
"I smiled at him in good-humoured perplexity and said:

'Tricky looking man, you are hard to place and it is not easy to guess your station. You seem very contented in one way but then again you do not seem to be satisfied. What is your objection to life?'

He blew little bags of smoke at me and looked at me closely from behind the bushels of hair which were growing about his eyes.

'Is it life?' he answered. 'I would rather be without it,' he said, 'for there is a queer small utility in it. You cannot eat it or drink it or smoke it in your pipe, it does not keep the rain out and it is a poor armful in the dark if you strip it and take it to bed with you after a night of porter when you are shivering with the red passion. It is a great mistake and a thing better done without, like bed-jars and foreign bacon.'

'That is a nice way to be talking on a grand lively day,' I chided, 'when the sun is roaring in the sky and sending great tidings into our weary bones.'

'Or like feather-beds,' he continued, 'or bread manufactured with powerful steam machinery. Is it life you say? Life?'

Explain the difficulty of life yet stressing its essential sweetness and desirability.

What sweetness?

Flowers in the spring, the glory and fulfillment of human life, bird-song at evening--you know very well what I mean.

I am not so sure about the sweetness all the same.

'It is hard to get the right shape of it,' I said to the tricky man, 'or to define life at all but if you identify life with enjoyment I am told that there is a better brand of it in the cities than in the country parts and there is said to be a very superior brand of it to be had in certain parts of France. Did you ever notice that cats have a lot of it in them when they are quite juveniles?'"

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