Monday, August 15, 2011

We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen (translated fiction)

Translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder

   "War was like sailing. You could learn about clouds, wind direction, and currents, but the sea remained forever unpredictable.  All you could do was adapt to it and try to return home alive."

Carsten Jensen was already noted as a journalist long before We, The Drowned, was published.  Perhaps it's his observation skills from that career that make this fictional maritime novel so enthralling.  Yes, that's a gushy word, and this review will contain many of them.  See, I had heard about the novel quite a bit, and had a few people recommend it.  And last year I was so adoring of anything Nordic or Scandinavian (still am, actually!).  But there was so much hype about this that I figured it may be too 'important' to be enjoyable.  I had it sitting a few weeks, looking like a great white whale among my other review copies....intimidating me.  Then I dove in.  And everything else pretty much got pushed aside in favor of reading this novel.

The scope is epic---generations of families living in the Danish port city of Marstal live and die, mostly via the sea. Going to sea is a right-of-passage for most every boy, and those who never return seem to outnumber those that do.  Yet, it's not overly sentimental--the stories are told in a more distant, reporting style, rather than as an emotional narrative.  Sections of the book are laid out almost as short novellas that interlink.  The most intriguing feature of the arc of the novel is the family ties.  We begin by meeting Laurids Madsen, an unflinching and unbending character who appears to be the model of wisdom and good.  The story moves through him to his son, Albert, and beyond.  Yet some vignettes feature new characters interlacing with old, and it seems like instead of a family tree, Jensen has created a city tree, donating a bit of space to each character.

"As we stood there, gazing out at the water, it seemed a great mystery lay before us: the mystery of our own lives, spread before our eyes. No matter how often we came here, it was a sight that always rendered us speechless."

Despite the many characters in play, however, none of them are similar.  They all feel distinctly individual, with traits that are too unexpected to be imagined.  I wondered if Jensen had collected a gallery of individuals from his reporting days, little mannerisms and odd habits that he saved to put together in this tale.  Because it feels so one behaves perfectly and things never go to plan, yet it feels right.  He recreates the speech of children, their inner thoughts, and moves on to the worries and equivocations of an older man.  Here he shows the child's reaction to fear:  "They were probably scared of him and so they did what boys do around any object of fear: they went up close, pointed a finger, gave it a nickname, and masked their terror with roaring laughter."

In a section about a vicious schoolteacher, it concludes,

"Limping and bleeding, our skin black-and-blue with livid bruises, we were always aching in some exposed place.  But that wasn't the worst of what Isager did to us.
He left his mark in another far more frightening way.
We became like him.
We committed appalling acts and only realized the horror of what we'd done when we stood gathered around the evidence of our atrocity.  Violence was like a drug we couldn't relinquish."

As Jensen tells it, it's clear that he's devoted to the tenacity of the Danish people.  Many times, but not always, he employs the David vs. Goliath archetype, with the small town victorious over much more feared and powerful nations.  In this way, he introduces a political and historical thread to the stories about the townsfolk, without becoming dull or stalling out over the explanations of war and battle.  In fact, as a journalist Jensen mentioned this in detail in an article from the BBC World Service, in regard to why Denmark hasn't joined in accepting the Euro but retains the krone for its monetary unit: 

"To understand the reason for this obstinacy in a people that historically has mostly been known for its lack of passion and its willingness to adapt, you must understand then in Denmark nationalism takes the shape of moralism.

In a world where almost all nations are bigger than Denmark with its number of inhabitants that is only half of that of London how do you compete? How do you become visible on the world map?

By claiming you belong to another world, that of moral superiority. Big is bad and small is good, you claim. You celebrate David as the symbol of your small nation and take on the rest of the world as if it was a kind of Goliath. It is not your contribution to the world that singles you out, it is your resistance to the world, the stones you throw at it" (1).

Back to the novel, we are shown that drowning is at the back of everyone's mind, whether in peacetime or war:  "Every sailor knows this bitter feeling: the coast is near, but you'll never reach it.  Is there anything more heartbreaking than drowning in sight of land?  Is there a single one of us who hasn't at least once felt haunted by the fear of slipping away within sight of a safe haven?...Every terror needs a yardstick, and surely the yardstick for the unknown is the known?"

Marstal, Denmark
As the people recover from their familial losses, they gain in other ways.  Marstal changes, and even the personality of the town is altered by the sea.  The losses from war aren't always physical, as Jensen shows clearly by even considering the economic conditions of the town.

I think I had two favorite aspects of the story, as well as a special fondness for Laurids and his son Albert.  The family line that is conveyed, with the lineage that is similar enough to feel related even if they hardly know each other, owes its success to the writer's skill of somehow incorporating DNA into the text.  Without telling the reader outright, one can sense the hereditary gifts (and faults) from father to son. 

The other draw of the story is the writing itself--fast-paced, lean, yet incredibly descriptive and atmospheric.  In some points you pause to reread a well-worded passage.  For example, one sentence knocked me out..."their blue faces made them look like mermen born of the boiling foam."  It felt poetic, and stuck in my head, until the point I thought the line was almost too perfect and alliterative.  Yet gorgeous metaphors like that appear throughout, without being too precious.  The locations too, from Australia to Samoa, Hawaii to the Caribbean and back to Marstal, feature realistic portrayals of ship life and the arduous journeys.

In an interview in World Literature Today, Jensen stated one purpose to the book for the city of Marstal today.  "...for the widows of Marstal whose husbands were lost at sea, there was never an ending.  No burial, no ritual of saying goodbye--like a sentence without a period.  I felt like I was finally providing an ending to their story, bringing the dead back home and burying them.  I was constructing a symbolic or metaphorical cemetary" (2).

For those ready to read this, it may be helpful to take note of a few of the names early on...the men who are captured by Germany and the boys in school in Marstal.  They reappear.  And don't let the large size of the book overwhelm you;  the brisk storyline builds to a roaring adventure quickly and keeps it up. 

One last note should address the beauty of the book itself, from the font and page numbers to the subtle graphics and monochrome color scheme.  Everything about it feels classy, and this is one book I'm not lending out.

Special thanks to Hannah Harlow of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the Review Copy.

(1) Web.
(2) Taras, Ray.  "A Conversation with Carsten Jensen".  World Literature Today, May-June 2011, p57. Print.


  1. Really nice review! This has been on my radar for a while, too, because of all the great reviews - but I haven't bought it yet, just because I keep asking myself how interested I could really be in a Danish fishing story. From reading your review, though, it sounds kind of like a James Michener or Edward Rutherfurd-type multi-generational tale - and I totally dig those. I'll definitely be moving this up the priority list. Cheers!

  2. Thanks Greg! Yep, you would like it. It's so much beyond the Danish coast that it's actually all over the world. Very Rutherfurd style. Be well, Amy

  3. Wow, I think this sounds gripping, but I don't know how I feel about reading it. Drowning is my greatest fear. But thanks for the fantastic review.

  4. Glad you liked it (my thoughts:, I loved it also. I got a galley copy but I'm buying a "hard" copy and think it will be one of the few books I'll actually re-read.