K.D. Absolutely's Reviews > At Swim-Two-Birds

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
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Jun 20, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 1001-core, time-100
Recommended to K.D. by: Time 100, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006-2010)
Read from July 02 to 04, 2011 — I own a copy , read count: 1

At Swim-To-Birds is a 1939 novel by Irish author Brian O’Nolan under the non de plueme Flann O’Brien. At one time, he also used a pen name Myles na Coppaleen (Myles of the Little Horses) taken from the character in Dion Boucicault’s play The Colleen Bawn. When my brother and I learned about this other pseudonym we thought that O’Brien might have some naughty Filipino friends or relatives. Myles could be a name of an Irish person, male or female. Then na Coppaleen is, in Filipino language, a description of dirty unwashed male genitals.

Despite that odd pseudonym, this book is amazing. With the 400+ fiction works that I’ve read so far, there is nothing like this yet. When I write reviews, I normally say this book reminded me of this book or that book. I can’t say that here. The reason is that this is the first book I encountered where there is a frame story about a young novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing a novel. Then the characters in the 2nd novel overthrow or raise arms against the novelist (the character). The frame story is about an unnamed Irish young man, a literature student, who lives with his nagging uncle. The uncle is concerned that his nephew spends a lot of time writing his book and no longer studies at home and rarely attends his classes at school. The young novelist does not believe in starting and ending his novel with only one scenario so he begins his story with three separate scenes that get interweave later in the narration. He also does not believe that his characters should be either good or bad so he has each of his characters with both good and bad characteristics.

The story within the story is about a devil called Pooka MacPhellimey who creates John Furriskey. Furriskey along with other characters like Paul Shanahan and Anthony Lamont become resentful of their story’s author, Dermot Trellis, a cynical writer of Westerns. So, the three drug him so that Dermot will sleep more and the three can do anything they want. However, Trellis creates Shiela Lamont (Anthony’s sister) and Trellis falls in love with her. Shiela bears Trellis a son, Orlick who happens to be a writer too and he begins to write a story where his father is tried, found guilty and then tortured. I will not tell you the rest of the story as it will be too much of a spoiler already.

There were a couple of scenes when I really laughed out loud. The scene between the devil Pooka and the Good Fairy and the Good Fairy is threatening that she will go inside Pooka’s ears. You should read their tirades against each other. Then I also laughed in the scene when Dermot is being tortured and he says to Pooka to turn him into a female so he can marry Pooka. He is turned into a rat instead. I mean, you are being tortured and you still want to marry your torturer ha ha.

Those are just examples of the scenes that I found funny but they really did not make any sense. However, I read in the Wiki that this book was supposed to be a satire of the political conditions in Ireland during the time of its writing so there must be an explanation on those.

Lastly, I started reading this book alongside another book entitled At Swim, Two Boys by another Irish writer, Jamie O’Neill. I thought that this book’s title refers to two birds swimming and I thought that it would be interesting to know which book or which two characters (the birds or the boys) will turn out to be more interesting. However, Wiki says that Swim-To-Birds was a fictitious place on the River Shannon (the longest river in Ireland), visited by the legendary King Sweeney, a legendary king in Ireland and a character in the novel. Thus, no birds were asked to swim in the river here. I should have taken note of those hyphens in the title.

Another unforgettable read. A notch, just a notch, better than his other work that I read first: The Third Policeman (4 stars).
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Reading Progress

07/03/2011 page 223
100.0% "Actually, I a done but no time to write my review yet."

Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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Lisa I can't wait to see what you think of this!

K.D. Absolutely I decided to pick this up because of the conversation we had many months ago. Hey, it is not an easy read. But it is interesting because it is unique so I will continue. I think it will be something like Cloud Atlas all over again. Hard to read but in the end worth the experience!

Lisa K.D. wrote: "I decided to pick this up because of the conversation we had many months ago. Hey, it is not an easy read. But it is interesting because it is unique so I will continue. I think it will be somethin..." Yes, and also kind of like Italo Calvino who I hadn't read when I wrote my review. My advice is just to go with the flow (like you do with James Joyce) and you'll find that it makes a crazy kind of sense eventually, and furthermore, that like many spoofs, it's not really meant to make sense.

message 4: by K.D. (last edited Jul 02, 2011 05:52PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Oh Lisa. I thrice tried reading Ulysses but in each case I had to put it back to my "to-read" folder.

But this one is thinner so I think I will do what you just told me. This might even be my training to pick up Ulysses again. Maybe before the end of this year. Thanks!

message 5: by Tintin (new)

Tintin When you said it's about "a young novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing a novel." I thought: Illustrado XD Intriguing concept, I just hope it didn't get bogged down by details. And I love your side comment about Myles na Coppaleen LOL.

K.D. Absolutely Oh yes, but Ilustrado stops there. Here he character of the 2nd novel raised arms againts the 2nd writer. This is outrageously novel. Well, let's not go into Ilustrado anymore. It just does not compare ha ha.

message 7: by Barbara (new)

Barbara As usual, KD, your review is terrific, but you haven't compelled me to read this!!

K.D. Absolutely Thanks, B. Yes, I understand :)

s.penkevich I should read the Third Policeman. This was amazing, really got me into the whole metafiction thing. Great review!

message 10: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Thanks, s.penkevich.

message 11: by Matt (new) - rated it 5 stars

Matt I liked your review, I'd love for you to read what I've got on this book: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

message 12: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Matt, that's terrific. Thanks!

Agnes Conway it's a bit of a stretch - and pointless - to equate the Filipino word coppaleen with the Irish word gcopaleen.

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