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Les Murray: Fredy Neptune

This book is subtitled A Novel in Verse and that is, indeed, what it is. But when you think back through literature, to works like The Aeneid, The Roman de la Rose, Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost, are these not novels in verse? Of course, we call these narrative poems or epic poems or, rather, we used to but now the term has clearly been supplanted by novel in verse. Vikram Seth‘s Golden Gate clearly falls into this genre but there have been problems with verse written as narrative, rather, as in these two cases, novels written in verse. James Merrill‘s wonderful Changing Light at Sandover has led to lots of discussion. Is it an epic or is it something else? Clearly, this is currently a tricky genre which we have difficulty dealing with.

Unlike Vikram Seth‘s Golden Gate, this book is in blank verse which detracts less, I find, from the story. It also uses another genre which is not as often talked about as it used to be – the picaresque. The eponymous hero – Friedrich Boettcher – is Australian born but of German parents. He spends most of the novel dealing with both of these facts. He starts the book out working on a freighter just before World War I breaks out but, while in Izmir, he sees a group of women burnt alive. He tries to rescue them but not only fails but contracts leprosy. From then on it is a romp round the globe. He is captured by the Germans but tries to escape, which he manages to do. But getting home is far more complicated. One of the side effects of the leprosy is that he has lost all feeling (in particular, he feels no pain) and is very strong.

His travels take him to the Middle East (where he meets T E Lawrence – he is not impressed) and get him somewhat involved in local politics. Eventually – and it takes some time – he gets back home where he finds his family has been thrown out for being German and he is unable to find them. He finally – by accident – tracks down his mother (his father has died) and settles down with Laura. But further travails with corrupt politicians mean he is soon off to America where he goes to Atlanta and, eventually, lands up in Hollywood, where he is befriended by Marlene Dietrich. His journey home is difficult – it takes him through Germany where he sees Adolf Hitler – but he is finally back home. Then war breaks out and he has to go and work on a ship which just happens to be in China the day the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Off he goes again – via New Guinea – before eventually getting home. Even there all his travails are not at an end as his German friend, whom he had rescued from Hitler’s compulsory sterilisation program – is put into an institution. But, finally all’s well that ends well.

The bare outlines of the plot cannot begin to convey the wonderful picaresque nature of this novel in verse. If Murray is sending a message it is that we are all subject to prejudice and that the average person should depend on his fellow-man/woman and not on the system and certainly not on the big boys, who are only on the lookout for themselves. But forget the message for this is a joyous romp round the world by a man with extraordinary gifts (strength and insensibility to pain) and who is subject to all sorts of vagaries dealt him by fate, like a true picaresque hero and yet, somehow, manages to survive and come through relatively intact. Man is cruel – the image of the women burning in Izmir is brought back on several occasions – but he can, he must survive it all.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Carcanet