The Long View: Fredy Neptune

I haven't read this book, but I admit I'm intrigued by John's description of it.

Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse
by Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999
255 Pages, $27.50 (US)
ISBN: 0-374-15854-1

In "The Devil's Dictionary," Ambrose Bierce defines "blank verse" thus:

"Unrhymed iambic pentameters -- the most difficult kind of English verse to write acceptably; a kind, therefore, much affected by those who cannot acceptably write any kind."

Les Murray's "Fredy Neptune," a novel about the life and adventures of a German-Australian seaman in the first half of the 20th century, is 255 pages of blank verse. Furthermore, it is blank verse in the service of a theodicy that makes use of ground-level descriptions of just about every major bad thing that happened from 1914 to 1945. Bierce would have approached such a work with understandable trepidation.

The wonder is that this is an excellent book, one that revealed to me things I did not know about the narrative uses of poetry. (You can get an amazing amount of action into a very few lines, for one thing.) The only drawback to "Fredy Neptune" is that it may tempt lesser writers to produce verse novels of their own; they might do themselves an injury in the attempt.

All I know about Les Murray is that he is a noted Australian poet who grew up on a farm. Except for the poet part, the same applies to his hero, Frederick (or is it Friedrich?) Boettcher. The protean instability of Fredy's name is one of the book's running gags. "Butcher, "Beecher," "Bircher" are all mispronunciations of his surname that Fredy lives with at different points in the story. (The "Neptune" of the title is a legacy from a brief stint as a strong-man in the circus.)

In addition to his name, Fredy has two chronic problems. The first is that, as the son of a German family in the era of what some English historians persist in calling "the German Wars," he and his loved ones are frequently ostracized from Australian society. His other chronic problem is that, because of a temporary case of leprosy contracted in the merchant marine, he is almost wholly without sensation in his skin. His inability to feel pain permits him to appear to be enormously strong, though in fact he simply cannot feel the damage his feats do to himself.

Though there is nothing forced about the historical scope of "Fredy Neptune," it does seem to be designed to cover as much ground as possible. Fredy's ability to speak German gets him a berth on a German freighter just before the First World War begins, which gets him drafted into the German Navy, which gets him to Germany. Another berth from neutral Holland begins a complicated sequence of events that land him in the Middle East, working as a cavalry stockman for the British Army. By war's end, however, Fredy is moving north, through the disintegrating Ottoman empire. Murray addresses the obligatory Gallipoli issue by having Fredy accept the forgiveness of a Turkish mother whose son was killed there. Thereafter he returns to Australia and, eventually, starts a family. (How does a man with no tactile sensation father children? Well, it's complicated.)

The Depression was a Bad Thing, too, so Fredy, blackmailed by a criminal syndicate into doing a bit of kidnapping for them, goes to America to get a good look. This was the only part of the book that struck me as blatantly literary. A string of Fitzgerald adventures, Faulkner adventures and Steinbeck adventures bring Fredy from a nest of gangsters in Appalachia, though the hobo-jungles of the West and on to what might in other circumstances have been the beginning of a promising career in Hollywood. A minor miracle (not the only one in the story) promotes Fredy from movie-crew best-boy to a zeppelin crewman. This gets him back to the Fatherland, where he has various fallings-out with the Nazis. He also acquires an adopted son when a retarded boy asks him for directions to his place of sterilization.

Back in the southwest Pacific for World War II, Fredy sees more than his share of pillage and atrocity from Shanghai to New Guinea. Still, by the end of the war, his life falls into a welcome routine, eventually achieving as much respectability as is consistent with running a trucking business founded on the shipment of black-market gasoline. He even achieves inner peace, getting his outer sensation back in the process.

There is a fair amount of showing off in "Fredy Neptune," particularly with languages. There are not many other books that have snatches of dialogue in both Turkish and Welsh. For the most part, this feature is put to good effect. The strongest line in the book is in German, when Fredy tells his gravely-wounded natural son that the boy's 71-year-old grandmother has just burned to death in the bombing of Dresden. Still, while "Fredy Neptune" is never willfully obscure, readers may have trouble distinguishing the historical personalities from the fictional ones. Certainly I did. It is hard to mistake the walk-ons by Marlene Dietrich and Lawrence of Arabia, but who was the villainous Sir Peter, minister of something or other at Brisbane, who coerced Fredy to take ship for New Orleans? And was there ever really a Dowager Countess Chlodwig-Wahnfriede von Rauschnitz zu Knull, who ruled a vestigial Ordensstaat in the Baltic and had a soft-spot for shipwrecked mariners? History is as full of mysteries as fiction.

All in all, Fredy sees an appalling amount of unhappiness, so much that he describes all of Eurasia as a great execution trench. A helpful Jewish friend, successfully escaping with his family from the Vichy-French concession at Shanghai, nevertheless drowns himself before his ship reaches Australia. He sends Fredy the explanation: "Noah couldn't bear to look at the drowned." This brings us to Murray's own outline of a theodicy for the first half of the 20th century.

Fredy is an ordinary Catholic. He even goes to confession once or twice in the novel; the descriptions are models of how it should be done. What worries him is not the existence, but the sanity of God. Fredy knows from his own experience that the only way to survive a beating is to pretend he is being hurt, since even a very cruel human being will eventually recoil from inflicting pain. God, however, does not. Whatever His purposes may be in allowing suffering in the world, they override every other consideration. Fredy's numbness is a way of dealing, not with his own suffering, but with the suffering of the victims.

Fredy's solution to the problem is to forgive the victims. Forgive the trapped Turkish troops being strafed day after day, forgive the Jews in the concentration camps, forgive his own mother in Dresden. Fredy also forgives God, who in Christian theology will never cease to suffer for our sins.

Is this a self-indulgence, a proposal that we need not trouble to have other people's misfortune on our conscience? Or is it a recognition that it is wrong for individual human beings to try to take the whole world on their shoulders, that this is not what compassion is for? Murray, wisely, does not try to develop a philosophical case for Fredy's solution. Maybe someone should, though.

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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