13 October 2009

"Fredy Neptune - a novel in verse" by Les Murray

Below is my review of Les Murray's novel in verse, Fredy Neptune. I finally finished it last night and have been captured by its spell of poetic mastery. I reckon its a candidate for "the" Australian novel. There might be some resistance to that because it is not written in prose. But who said a novel could not be a poem?

Fredy Neptune: A novel in verse

By Les Murray.

This novel was first released in 1999. It is arguably a candidate for “the” Australian novel. It is in verse. That is, it is written in eight line stanzas with a semi-rigorous metrical beat. Do not be daunted. You quickly forget that you are reading verse, and it is more than worth any little initial effort. The compression and lyricism that the poetic form allows, provides a loadstone in which Murray lavishly embeds polished gemstones of insight and he creates a word music that mere prose would labour too hard to emulate. It makes for a spectacularly rich and multi-faceted yarn, filled with action and drama a plenty, a driving narrative and humanistic and spiritual reckoning.

Fredy Neptune is the circus name given to Friedrich Boettcher, a German/Australian child of the rural back blocks, who travels the twentieth century world as a farm labourer, sailor, circus performer, film extra, Zeppelin crewman, fisherman and confidant of the famous and the forgotten. Fredy is infused with much of the flavour of Les Murray’s own life. But here he is nothing less than an Odysseus, an Aussie Homer Simpson like everyman, with superhuman strength and a Forest Gump like bent for bumping into history. His is a rough journey. He gets marooned in foreign lands unable to return home to wife and family, battling a hostile and implacable universe of forces beyond comprehension, indifferent to all caught in its sweep. We traverse the Great War, the Depression and the Second War; via Constantinople, Jerusalem, Paris, Switzerland, Hollywood, Hitler’s Germany, Soviet Russia, Shanghai, Egypt, Japanese occupied New Guinea, Queensland, Sydney, Newcastle and Dungog; befriending and alienating a large cast including Marlene Dietrich, Lawrence of Arabia, Chaim Wiezman, Basil Thoroblood and a mentally handicapped German boy Fred smuggles out of Germany and brings back to the Hunter to protect him from Aryan cleansing.

In metaphor, and in the telling, Freddy is confronted by some of the twentieth century’s worst moral atrocities, loses all feeling as a consequence and then struggles to find a way back to emotional and physical wholeness. He heals himself only when he realizes he needs to forgive the victims: Jews, the disabled, women, Aborigines. Only once he finds that he has forgiven them for the responsibility that he, as a non-victim, feels for their plight, can he “pray again with a whole heart”.

But this book is not turgid, stuck up or intellectualised. It is a tale that is, above all, Australian. Its idioms, its pre-occupations, its world view could only have been conjured by an Australian with a love for story telling and a poetic genius of Les Murray’s gifts. Read this Australian Ulysses without being intimidated. The great Dublin novel by the incomparable Joyce remains without peer, but this Australian homage to Homer’s epic poem, is also delight to read, especially to an Australian ear.


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