Mark McKenna's Reviews > We, the Drowned

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
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's review
Mar 27, 2011

it was amazing
Read from March 19 to 27, 2011

ATTN: Thar be spoilers here, matey.

"We, the Drowned" is a big book. Winner of the "Danske Banks Litteraturpris" and called in a reader poll, "The best book in Denmark in the past 25 years," it was written by journalist Carsten Jensen and expertly translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund, with Liz Jensen.

"We, the Drowned" tells the history of a Danish seaport, Marstal, over a hundred year period: from 1845 -- and a war between Denmark and Germany -- to 1945, and World War II. The wars are told, along with everything else, as stories of the sea. Jensen obviously spent years researching and writing this almost 700 page masterpiece, and masterpiece it is.

This hundred year period starts with the great sailing ships and ends with turbines and diesel engines. Along the way, it covers the brutality of "education": students beaten incessantly and taught next to nothing, and the brutality thus created in them. (This "education" does turn out to be useful, it seems, because it prepares the boys of Marstal for their continued beatings on board ship and their eventual deaths in the sea.)

If I'm making "We, the Drowned" sound like a history book, I apologize. It's not. All these adventures are told in a personal way by a master storyteller. It's as if Jensen were channeling the ease and naturalness of Isaac Singer, say, along with the historical accuracy of Sigrid Undset in one book.

The adventures start with Laurids, the grandfather and patriarch who becomes a legendary figure after being blown sky high and returning safely to the deck of the ship with his seaman's boots on fire. The story is then moves to Albert, his youngest son. At the end of his life Albert mentors a young boy named Knud Erik and it is his story that ends the book with his return from WWII. Also featured here is the tale of Knud Erik's mother, Klara. Klara hates the sea for the death and grief it has caused the mothers of Marstal throughout the years.

Klara single-handedly decides to destroy the shipping industry of the city -- and almost succeeds. Jensen compares her to Perseus who, becoming enraged after losing his fleet in a storm, orders that the sea to be whipped with chains. Klara's "whipping" involves buying all Marstal's ships, one by one, then selling them for a profit to outsiders.

Along with these main stories comes a cast of, well . . . it seems like a few hundred at least. Each character is granted time on the stage -- pages, or just a few lines -- for their story to be told. "We, the Drowned" is small town gossip writ large, and it has the compelling nature of gossip. To help sustain this illusion, Jensen uses the first person plural construction for much of his narrative.

"We all thought..."

"We," being the whole town of Marstal with the reader somehow included.

Marstal was a town full of stories. A fat wife beats her skinny schoolmaster husband. He, in turn, psychotically whips the boys with a knotted rope. They learn to predict when this is going to happen by how far down his spectacles are perched on his nose. The brutalized schoolboys then kill the schoolmaster's defenseless dog and cause his house to be burned down. The whippings do not stop...

A century filled with story. Each one told with the outrageousness of magic realism driven by the earthy power of gossip.

"We, the Drowned" is a book that will keep you engrossed for the whole of its length. And you may have to rinse the salt out of your clothes when you've finished.
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