Fredy Neptune is a strange and powerful novel, divided into five segments and related in eight-line stanzas of unrhymed verse. Fredy Neptune does not contain an easy-to-follow story with a classic plot, like the popular romantic novel in sonnets of the 1980’s, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986; reissued 1991). Rather, the poetry of this narrative adds another layer of complexity to a gnarled and knotted symbolic story with political and theological dimensions. For the reader willing to engage with the main character in his strange odyssey and in his struggle to make sense of a cataclysmic world, the novel offers rich rewards.
Les Murray, an Australian poet, is the author of numerous other works including The Rabbiter’s Bounty: Collected Poems (1991), Translations from the Natural World (1992), and Subhuman Redneck Poems (1997). Murray’s poems, which often use formalist verse to explore social and theological issues, have won international acclaim, and he won the T. S. Eliot Prize in 1996. His poems frequently examine the line between the comprehensible and the inexplicable, finding ways to define his theology and explore its possibilities. Murray presents a sophisticated understanding of religion to a world which appears to be determinedly post-Christian. His work has a maverick metaphysics that speaks to those who do not share it and compels anyone who reads Murray’s poems and stories to at least consider it.
Murray’s work is “postmodern” only in that it challenges divisions between genres and the conventions of the novel, merging poetry and fiction in a verse narrative and violating all expectations readers have of unity of time and place. The expansive, inclusive feel of this novel is both original and postmodern. Time and space seem to open and contract easily, and the reader soon accommodates the shifting landscapes, rapid sequence of events, and endless flow of characters. In other respects, Fredy Neptune is a straightforward tale of suffering and redemption in a world that seems dominated by hatred and violence.
The narrator of this story is Fredy Boettcher, an Australian- German sailor who is forced to work on a German battleship at the beginning of World War I. The novel begins with pictures of Fredy’s distant and rustic childhood, from which he is abruptly yanked.
That was sausage day
on our farm outside Dungog.
There’s my father Reinhard Boettcher,
my mother Agnes. There is brother Frank
who died of the brain-burn, meningitis.
Working on a freighter at the beginning of the war, he is more or less forced into service on a warship. Once away from the relative peace of his home in Australia, where the only disasters were natural ones, he is exposed to horrors beyond comprehension. One of the first scenes he witnesses is the burning of women in Turkey as they beg for mercy.
This sight, described very briefly in a single eight-line stanza, so shocks Fredy that he loses his sense of touch. He cannot feel anything, and this strange aberration is the cause of the rest of his adventures. At first he is thought to have leprosy and is treated accordingly. However, it seems that his illness is not leprosy but a kind of shell-shock whereby, because of the incredible destruction of life he has witnessed and has been able to do nothing to stop, he has become numb. He can feel nothing physically, and his main emotion seems to be guilt, which spurs him to attempt to rescue others and prevent mayhem whenever he possibly can. Because he cannot feel pain, he often injures himself in his attempts to help others. Moreover, these attempts bring him to the attention of various authorities, and so he is always on the run. Because he is German-Australian, everyone is immediately suspicious of him, and people exploit his vulnerability as well as his great strength.
Nevertheless, both his physical powers and his inability to feel end up serving him in many careers and encounters, as he passes through the devastating events of World War I, the period between the wars including the stock market crash of 1929 (during which he is in the United States), and later World War...
(The entire section is 1745 words.)