Les Murray, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral: A novel sequence (Angus & Robertson 1980, Minerva 1993)
Here’s Laurie Duggan’s ‘translation’ of Martial’s epigram VIII lxxv, written less than a decade after The Boys Who Stole the Funeral was published:
After reading at the Lions Club the Bard slipped and sprawled on Taree shopping plaza's _____crazy paving. His weedy acolytes couldn't shift the bugger an inch. Luckily for him, a hearse stopped and two burly undertakers winched and crammed the great man ______into the back, splintering the neighbour coffin. Was he taken home to Bunyah, you ask? Or was he stolen by the funeral?
I like the way this capitalises on the serendipitous resonance between Martial’s scenario of the ingens dominus (huge master) who is heaved onto a funeral bier and the fact that bulky Les Murray wrote a ‘novel sequence’ about a funeral. I also like the way Martial is transposed into an Australian vernacular But there’s something else: if there’s malice in Duggan’s image of the ‘Bard’s double humiliation, it’s a pallid thing compared to this book’s savage caricaturing of intellectuals, city people, socialists, feminists and their multitudinous ilk. When I read Duggan’s poem a fortnight ago, before I’d read The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, I thought it was a bit of mischievous fun; I now read it as a tiny piece of retaliation against a massive attack.
A story outline would lead you to expect a great yarn with a thread of dark humour running through it. Two young men, university drop-outs, steal the corpse of an old soldier friend and take him to the country town where he has said he wanted to be buried, but where none of his family could afford to take his body. His funeral is the occasion for a great coming together of country folk, but the consequences for the boys are greater than they could have imagined – one dies a violent death and the other finds spiritual wholeness in a new, profound connection with country.
It should have been a great yarn, but alas, for all Les Murray’s greatness as a poet, he is a lousy story teller. None of the characters emerges as more than a type. A number of the barely distinguishable country folk seem to represent different aspects of salt-of-the-earth people that Murray approves of, and at the other extreme a rabid feminist–pacifist character is spectacularly implausible. Implausibility is a strong feature (reaching a peak in the boy’s killing). There’s quite a lot of dialogue, but it’s often all but impossible to tell who is supposed to be speaking. The narrative, such as it is, progresses with little regard for pacing, or motivation, or sense of place. The latter is particularly odd, given that Murray’s poetry elsewhere can evoke place with powerful specificity. Everything seems to be in the service of a weird anti-modernism. Perhaps the intention was to put forward a spiritual vision of some sort, but the vision is lost in the welter of negativity that accompanies it, so that the effect is of a mean-spirited nastiness about human beings.
I found this book deeply horrible, and also not much good. Some reviews I’ve read seem to think its wonderful – one US reviewer said that Murray’s skill made Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate look amateurish. We live on different planets. Maybe the book really is up there with the great and I’m an idiot.