Heaven or Hell: Two literary journeys in the afterlife

Early warning:

This is a post that analyses themes in two books – Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus. There will be reference to the plots, including the endings, of both books so beware of spoilers!

Hell has been imagined in many circumstances. Heaven, perhaps less often, has been used as a plot device or a theme for artistic creation. The dichotomy of “eternal suffering Vs eternal bliss”, in whatever form these two things take shape, is a common theme in religious teachings, and has also been used to form philosophical theory in literature. After recently reading JM Coetzee’s divine The Childhood of Jesus I was reminded of Flann O’Brien’s devilishly good satire The Third Policeman, and this post is an analysis of the concepts of heaven and hell through these two works of literature.

Synopsis – Heaven

The Childhood of Jesus (image from Wikipedia)

In Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, the book opens with the protagonists, a middle-aged man named Simón, and his companion David, a boy of five, as they land ashore on a new country. The place is foreign, and it remains unnamed throughout the book. The reader is met with several quirks immediately, for example the lack of sexual desire in both men and women, the openness and friendliness of people to these refugees and the ease of access to work. Later in the book it is revealed that education and play are also openly available to all, and that there is a mysteriously complete free-will even in the perceived regimented order of the place.

David is looking for his mother, who he lost but who is in this new place, and Simón cares for the boy as a father, but promises to help him find his mother and reunite them. Eventually a lady, Ines, is found at a resort, and Simón feels that she must be his mother, so acquaints the two and leaves the boy in her care. She becomes an overbearing figure on David’s life, dressing him like a baby and refusing him education because he is too young. The child becomes spoiled, but within this he develops notions about people and places that have an otherness to the world that he is in. He forms his own quixotic notions about his world, and he gains admirers (or followers) as the book progresses. Simón is forced out of David’s life by Ines, but he slowly works his way back in as an educator and as a father-figure. David’s schooling becomes problematic as his teacher is at odds with him, and he is sent to a private school that he later “escapes” from. Finally, the “family” set off on the road to a new place, and this exploration of the new is where the story ends.

The heavenly connection comes from both the utopic view of the world (where everyone is highly educated and free from “the desires of the flesh”) and from persistent references to the idea that after coming to this place, Simón and David cannot return to the old world.

Synopsis – Hell

The Third Policeman from WikipediaO’Brien’s The Third Policeman takes place in a surreal world that the protagonist (the unnamed narrator) falls into suddenly after a dark and murderous beginning. Plotting with a friend, John Divney, the narrator takes part in the murder of a man named Mathers in order to rob him. When he steals off to retrieve his bounty from the house of Mathers, the narrator finds himself suddenly thrust into a fantasy world of long, winding lanes, philosophical policemen and bicycles.

The story recounts unusual pseudo-scientific theories dictated by the mysterious character De Selby in the book’s extensive footnotes. De Selby’s theories were studied by the narrator throughout his life. The narrator meets various characters in this world, including policemen who  guard secrets that they believe control the stability of the universe, and who believe in strange theories that appear to be adaptations of De Selby’s bizarre science.

After being found unexpectedly guilty of Mathers’ murder, the narrator escapes the gallows on a bicycle. He finally finds himself back at Mathers’ house, and therein the third policemen, Fox (who has Mathers’ face) reveals to him the treasure of the house. Excited, he goes to find his partner Divney, but when he does he finds him sixteen years older and with a family. The family cannot see the narrator, but Divney can, and he has a heart attack at the sight of his friend. It is then revealed that the narrator had died sixteen years earlier, when a booby trap set by Divney exploded as he was retrieving the aforementioned bounty, and that he had been doomed to cycle through his experiences in this surreal and frustrating world for eternity. Divney, after death, joins the narrator in this repetitive, eternal hell, and the book ends with a repetition of the narrator’s original entry to the afterlife.

A photograph of an abandoned constuction site with what looks like a swimming pool inside, usd to represent displacement

Comparison – Displacement

The central plot of The Childhood of Jesus, or perhaps the red herring, is David’s wish to find his mother. The lady Ines appears at an opportune moment and adopts David, subsequently over-mothering him and converting the 5-year-old into a baby. David’s acceptance of this (and Simón’s objections, despite his giving up the child willingly) all relate to home, sanctity and security.

The displacement that is constantly apparent in this novel repeats from the initial arrival on-shore, through to the protagonists moving from home to home, trekking through the city on long bus-routes, walking to the countryside (where they discover Ines) and finally departing from the city in search of a new life. The nomadic nature is developmental, however; The child’s intriguing ideas on mathematics and “reality” derive from his experience and understanding of the world, and he grows with the novel. Simón, too, grows into accepting the child as the unusual marvel that he is. The novel ends with Ines, Simón, David and a hitch-hiker (a new friend of David’s) driving off to another new life on a nomadic parade of freedom.

Meanwhile, in hell, the narrator has a similar nomadic experience, trawling past a similarly surreal series of events. He meets with, and becomes frustrated by, a fairy-tale Irish village run by a small constabulary of three policemen. These off-beat characters hold weight over the narrator from the start of the story. Although he seems free to act, something traps the narrator into repetitive conversations with the policemen, and his hellish experience grows. Trekking down a forgotten road, the narrator narrowly avoids the gallows by escaping on a bicycle. Every event of his journey is overshadowed with some desire to “return” (something that the characters in our heaven rarely speak about).

Eventually the road circles on itself and the narrator finds himself back at the beginning of the story, destined to play it all out again, contrasting The Childhood of Jesus, where the experiences promise to be new. The narrator has a partner on his next turn through the afterlife, Divney, his co-conspirator and his murderer (who he subsequently kills by appearing to him as a ghost). They do not speak and are not bound together, as the companions are in The Childhood of Jesus. The ending suggests that they will traipse the road together eternally, tied to one another but not together, not as companions, but as the hateful destroyers of one another.

An edited photograph of a country house in Ireland with distorted colours, representing the surreal landscape at the beginning of The Third Policeman

Comparison – Acceptance of Surreal Circumstances

The surreal nature of both novels is apparent from early in the plots. As Simón and David begin to experience the new land that they arrive on, Simón struggles to come to terms with behavioural differences (the people are highly educated yet use little technology, the idea of sexual desire is not apparent in women or men, but Simón retains it). David, conversely, adapts quickly and naturally to new scenarios, including when he briefly partners up with a bandit, Daga, a harsh man who embraces his freedom thoroughly in this new world. The message that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, as Simón struggles more and David becomes more normalised within the surreal world, is key to the story’s relationship with acceptance.

David misses something about food from the old world. He dislikes the new food that he encounters. However, he adapts quickly to ways of life, even if he doesn’t accept them. He creates his own system of understanding of numbers that contradicts what he learns in school, and he gains admirers in all walks of life, who take to him as he takes to them. Conversely, the narrator in The Third Policeman never forms relationships. He seems constantly at odds with his unusual surroundings, and he remains alone after each brief adventure. He observes the ideas of the other characters in the book through the eyes of someone who seems to disregard this new life.

Central to this book’s relationships are the (other) two policemen and their wild theories on the world. One believes that, through particle exchange, people become more and more like the things they use most, and vice versa. The prime example given is in how people who ride bicycles become more like bicycles to the point where they have to lean against walls to stand up or else fall over; the bicycles similarly gain human characteristics and personality in this exchange. This is the most apparent adjustment of conscious thought in the book, where the narrator’s life-long studies of the mysterious and otherworldly scientist, De Selby, become part of the hellish afterlife that he trawls through.

Further to this, the policemen show the narrator a box that, in the style of Matryoshka dolls, contains a smaller identical box, and more boxes infinitely smaller to a microscopic level. This string of smaller objects causes the narrator immense discomfort; he is unable to accept this level of perpetual infinity, and this is an allegory for the overall story, the idea of infinite repetition and the consistency of hell.

The parallel between the past life and the present seems apparent in both heaven and hell, however it is the obsessive bind to the past life in O’Brien’s hellish prose that counteracts the somewhat utopian, if surreal, nature of Coetzee’s heaven.

A photograph of a road expanding into the distance, symbolising freedom (and the end of The Childhood of Jesus)

Comparison – Freedom

Flann O’Brien’s novel is tied to a notion of policing. The dictatorial nature of the Irish Guard is something that harks back to the context of rural Ireland in the early 20th Century, when the police force had a large amount of power entrusted to them by the state. The police brandish a control over the actions of the narrator, pulling him to and fro and always seemingly in his sphere of activity regardless of how freely he attempts to act. He believes that another man, Finucane, will be found guilty of the murder of Mathers as all of the evidence suggests it was he, however the police eventually arrest the narrator and attempt to hang him before he escapes.

The freedom in The Childhood of Jesus contradicts this. There is no limitation on behaviour or movement, as Daga finds when he steals a money box from Simón’s place of work. There seems to be no law, although there is a fear of law. This is alluded to twice: First in the schooling of David, where the child is sent to a school that he claims is surrounded by barbed wire; Second in the final scenes, where the newly formed family group leave the city behind and Simón (somewhat casually) worries about the legality of this move.

However the freedom of the characters in The Childhood of Jesus is never contested. No matter how they act throughout the novel (Simón often does not show up for work, but never loses his job; he gives parental control of David to Ines without any formalisation) everything seems dictated by the will of the individuals and their right to act as they choose. Even Daga’s brazenness during his robbery is barely questioned. Conversely, the narrator in The Third Policeman is locked in a spiralling prison, condemned to repetition without any choice about where to go. When he deviates from his path he always finds himself back on it.

An image of an artwork, Future Proof II, distorted and edited to look overbearing

The idea of freedom seems central to heaven and hell. Beyond all other theories, the freedom to act in a way that is not controlled by others seems crucial to any concept of heaven. This, outside of literature, can become central to our own way of life. Outside of constriction, we are already in heaven (a beautiful thought). And this is apparent in many more ideas on utopia/dystopia. And maybe it is this drive toward freedom that is the true obsession of people in all walks of life that makes a heavenly image an image without chains or barriers.

And that all makes me wonder why a people in the western world, where we believe our actions to be free, might treasure this idea above all others.

All images in this post are my own and subject to copyright unless stated. I don’t mind reproductions, but please credit them to this blog or contact (contactmoonunderwater@gmail.com) for more information.

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