We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
I have been, admittedly, very lax in my postings on the Catapult as of late and the best excuse I can offer is that I was so wrapped up in the book I was reading that I had no leftover time to write about anything else. Sound good?
We, the Drowned is a gorgeous 675-page novel about several generations of seafaring Danes from the tiny town of Marstal on the archipelago island of Ærø. Since its original Danish publication in 2006, it has won the Danske Banks Litteraturpris – the highest literary award in Denmark – and was voted the best Danish novel of the last 25 years by the readers of the country’s largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten.
And check out that cover art – if this isn’t the kind of aesthetics that will keep paperbound books in our lives, I don’t know what is. (Illustrated by Joe McLaren, jacket design by Susanne Dean, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)
Spanning the years & generations from 1848 to 1945, We follows the sailors of Marstal – the center of Danish seafaring pride – as they travel the oceans of the world – from Samoa to Newfoundland, Australia to London, Casablanca to Dakar, Murmansk to Greenland, and back home to Marstal. Always back to Marstal, where the women wait, worry, and grieve.
In the 19th-century, Marstallers expertly manned the sailing ships of the world, moving commerce across the seas on the winds, only distracted by periodic warring with the Germans. Larger and louder than life, Laurids Madsen was once “best known for having single-handedly started (one of those) war(s),” that is, until he was literally blown sky high when his ship was destroyed in a sea battle. According to him, thanks to his rather large, heavy sea boots, he landed back on his feet, but not before seeing Saint Peter “flash his bare ass” at him in Heaven first. But Laurids came back down a changed man and he mysteriously abandoned his wife and family to sail the seas far from Marstal, never to return home. No news ever came that he had died or been lost, he just disappeared – a fate worse than actual news for those left behind.
The “we” of the title is, in fact, the residents of Marstal and Jensen often turns his narration to the collective voice when viewing events from the safety of land. “We” are proud, curious, & judgmental, yet sympathetic and completely invested in the lifeblood of Marstal. In the early chapters, the collective “we” is our primary narrator, telling stories of the sea from the warm bars and dry docks of town, until “we” implore Laurids’ son Albert to tell his tale of life on the seas, searching for his missing papa tru.
In 1862, wearing his father’s famed boots, Albert follows a rumor of Laurids from Singapore to Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land, Australia – “everyone’s dead end” – where he follows a debt of his father’s towards Hawaii. Albert’s narrative – his harrowing adventures across the Pacific with the insane, malignant Jack Lewis, his crew of tattooed Kanak islanders, and the shrunken head of Captain James Cook – is really where the novel hits its stride. So driven is Albert to find his missing father, he ignores Jack’s encroaching insanity and dismisses his own, preferring to discuss his plans with the shrunken head, rather than step back and reevaluate his voyage. Of course, what he does eventually find living on Samoa in the body of his once majestic father leaves him empty, ravaged, and baffled. But the voyage itself is the journey he needed to become his own man in the end, despite what sort of creature Laurids may have become in his self-imposed exile. But Albert kept the boots.
When Albert eventually came ashore by the 1890’s, Marstal experienced its most productive, profitable time period and Albert became quite wealthy as a ship owner & broker, while filling the pockets of the townspeople and spreading his message of the strength of fellowship. However, starting in 1913, on the cusp of the first World War, he nightly began to dream vivid dreams of the deaths of the men of Marstal at sea. He knew, beyond doubt, that he was “foreseeing a war” and the “end of an entire world.” The innocent world inhabited by Marstallers was soon coming to a close with a mighty crash.
In response to his dreams (which he kept secret, except for in his diary), Albert became a comforting voice to the grieving families of the lost sailors – visiting them to break the terrible news from the front. This new position eventually lead him to Klara Friis and her young, newly fatherless son, Knud Erik. Albert and the boy began spending their days together, Albert acting as the father Knud Erik had lost, and the boy as the son Albert never had. Klara forbid Knud Erik from ever becoming a sailor, fearing above all else, losing another man in her life to the treacherous sea. But all Knud Erik ever wanted to do was become a sailor like his father, and now, like Albert.
I think I’ve given away enough of the plot now, and I don’t want to ruin anymore for anyone. The third act of the book is about Knud Erik, who picks up the narration upon Albert’s death and carries us across the northern seas and into yet another war with the Germans. If Albert’s story was where this novel hit its stride, it is Knud Erik’s where it becomes something else entirely.
The flow of the narrative from the collective to Laurids to Albert to Knud Erik, is seamless, lyrical, and beautifully wrought. The characters are unusual and original, yet wholly familiar – I reached a comfort level in their presence like I would with an old friend. Forget all the “book review” stylings: We, the Drowned was one of the best books I have ever read in my life.
We always carry our own lives & experiences around with us when we read, of course, so maybe the fathers-and-sons theme just struck a more resonant chord with me than it will for everyone. That’s the brilliant thing about this – so much of the story is also about those left behind in the wake of the departing ships that you could read the same book and come away with a different feel for what it truly was about. As much as it is about the adventures of Laurids, Albert, and Knud Erik, it is about Klara, Herman, and the all the rest of the people of Marstal. It is funny and poignant, heartwarming and powerful, yet dark and foreboding in a way that only the events of our own world can be.
Even after nearly 700 pages of reading and as crazy as it sounds, I really didn’t want it to end. It was all so well told and so vividly rendered, I felt as if these people of Marstal had become a part of my own life, my own history. (Not literally, of course – I’m not insane.) After all that I had read, the final, powerful page brought tears to my eyes as the living and the dead all returned to the shores of Ærø. “Tonight we danced with the drowned. And they were us.”