Review: Fredy Neptune by Les Murray

Witnessing the immolation of a group of Turkish women at the start of World War I, an unbearable event he could not prevent, Fredy Boettcher loses all sensation, becoming a ‘numb hulk’ who must remind himself to maintain the illusion of being able to feel.

The story follows Fredy, an ethnic German-Australian seaman, from the start of the First World War through to the close of the Second. The poem chronicles his shipboard jobs, his wild adventures, narrow escapes, and flights from police states. The 265 page narrative weaves its way among the classes most vulnerable to mass slaughter while presenting Fredy as a witness to a century desensitised to cruelty and suffering. With Fredy—and through him—we seek a way to feel anew and attempt a deeper understanding of world events that are unbearable to recall.

Writing a novel in verse allows for greater freedom than is available in either genre on its own. The result is, quite simply, a haunting, beautiful work. There are mythological resonances, echoes of the great epics of the past. However, Murray resists “transposing an existing myth into modern dress” and pooh-poohs the rush of critics eager to ‘hogtie’ Fredy to the Ancient Mariner and Odysseus simply because the main character is a sailor.

While such a long narrative poem is daunting to many readers, Fredy Neptune is really a fast-paced adventure story of the best sort—thrilling and meaningful at once. Deliberately cast in non-literary language, this is, nonetheless, a literary masterpiece from one of Australia’s greatest living poets. First published in 1998, it has now been re-released—and I hope this time to as much acclaim in Australian literary circles as it has received abroad.

Fredy Neptune, Les Murray, Black Inc.

Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2007.

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