Facing down forms

“Missing bicycles,” the title of yesterday’s post, prompted an association as far from yesterday’s subject of the Tour de France as might be possible. It recalled one of my favourite passages from the works of Flann O’Brien, a conversation in the surreal novel The Third Policeman.

The protagonist encounters a police officer who could match the most mendacious of politicians in his capacity for obfuscation.

Sergeant Pluck is a man who likes the dull and routine and the uneventful. He is a policeman who is never more happy than when life is about bicycles, or dog licences or papers for bulls. A world about such my mundane things is his idea of a good place:

“Is it about a bicycle?” he asked.

His expression when I encountered it was unexpectedly reassuring. His face was gross and far from beautiful but he had modified and assembled his various unpleasant features in some skilful way so that they expressed to me good nature, politeness and infinite patience. In the front of his peaked official cap was an important-looking badge and over it in golden letters was the word SERGEANT. It was Sergeant Pluck himself.

“No,” I answered, stretching forth my hand to lean with it against the counter. The Sergeant looked at me incredulously.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Certain.”

“Not about a motor-cycle?”

“No.”

“One with overhead valves and a dynamo for light? Or with racing handle-bars?”

“No.”

“In that circumstantial eventuality there can be no question of a motor-bicycle,” he said. He looked surprised and puzzled and leaned sideways on the counter on the prop of his left elbow, putting the knuckles of his right hand between his yellow teeth and raising three enormous wrinkles of perplexity on his forehead. I decided now that he was a simple man and that I would have no difficulty in dealing with him exactly as I desired and finding out from him what had happened to the black box. I did not understand clearly the reason for his questions about bicycles but I made up my mind to answer everything carefully, to bide my time and to be cunning in all my dealings with him. He moved away abstractedly, came back and handed me a bundle of differently-coloured papers which looked like application forms for bull-licences and dog-licences and the like.

“It would be no harm if you filled up these forms,” he said. “Tell me,” he continued, “would it be true that you are an itinerant dentist and that you came on a tricycle?”

“It would not,” I replied.

“On a patent tandem?”

“No.”

“Dentists are an unpredictable coterie of people,” he said. “Do you tell me it was a velocipede or a penny-farthing?”

“I do not,” I said evenly. He gave me a long searching look as if to see whether I was serious in what I was saying, again wrinkling up his brow.

“Then maybe you are no dentist at all,” he said, “but only a man after a dog licence or papers for a bull?”

“I did not say I was a dentist,” I said sharply, “and I did not say anything about a bull.”

The Sergeant looked at me incredulously.

Flann O’Brien’s satire worked so successfully because his readers recognised in his tales expressions of the truth. Officials similar to Sergeant Pluck may be encountered within every society, even more so with the capacity for bureaucratic empire building created by the Covid-19 crisis. The question that has to be faced is whether one succumbs to the bundles of different coloured forms, or chooses to stand up to the Sergeant Plucks.

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