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Tina Jackson
Tina Jackson

We, the Drowned
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Wider and Wilder: 'We, the Drowned' by Carsten Jensen

Tina Jackson

Seafaring literature by definition examines entirely different territory from the majority of writerly fiction, which compresses the world into a small, minutely detailed – and examined – space. Adrift from the habitats of the land dweller, who is bound by social proprieties and conventions, the seafarer’s scope is wider and wilder, and is populated by the strange, the fabulous and the elemental – as is the fiction that gives voice to such vastness. No wonder so much of the literature of the sea is epic and/or mythic; ref. Moby Dick, The Odyssey.          

Carsten Jensen’s magnificent We, the Drowned – hands down, the most enthralling and memorable storytelling published this year – is a worthy addition to this company. The Danish writer’s wide-eyed epic spans several generations of seafarers who set out from the small port of Marstal to the most far-flung corners of the globe, in the process accumulating a collection of tall tales sufficient to hold the reader in their grip for nearly 700 pages.

          Told by a Greek chorus of townspeople who have overseen the doings of Marstal’s inhabitants for a century, the otherworldly quality of Jensen’s book is balanced by the gritty, salty nature of these vivid yarns of rough men in extreme situations. The rules that bind ordinary conduct are irrelevant at sea; once they abandon the safety of land and set forth on their voyages, Jensen’s characters assume the larger-than-life proportions of mythic heroes and adventurers. Once the sea takes the men, they are set free from all constraints beyond survival; when they come back, having lived through experiences that would have been unimaginable to their land-lubbing boyhood selves, they are never the same again.

          The first larger-than-life character whose tales are told is Laurids Madsen: a colourful chancer who, having lived through a savage naval invasion by the German fleet and a spell in prison, sails away from Marstal, never to be seen again. His son Albert sets off in his wake. Unlike his flamboyant, rakish father, Albert has the quiet determination of a hero, encountering monsters and the most terrible situations on a thrilling quest that leads him to the South Seas in his search for his absent parent.

          Albert becomes a wealthy ship-owner, and his return to Marstal is fateful: he meets the boy Knud Erik, who grows into Jensen’s third mariner, and Knud Erik’s mother, Klara, who is eventually Albert’s undoing. Knud Erik is obsessed by going to sea; his mother is even more determined that the sea will have no more of the town’s young men. Knud Erik’s story takes We, the Drowned into the modern era, bringing with it the terrors of World War Two and the irrevocable changes brought to seafaring life by the transition from sail to steam.

          A book of this scope is about history as well as the men who live through it, and Jensen encompasses not just tragedy, comedy, domesticity and high adventure, but also the effects of war, technology, trade and world events on the men whose livelihoods depend on sea. It recounts the stories of the women left behind on Marstal to manage without their menfolk, and it tells of how, in the end, and like the sea, everything shifts and changes. The only constant is the sea itself; it dictates its own ways and the attempts of the men who depend on it for their livelihood. In telling all these tales, We, the Drowned is a magnificent achievement – a book for life, and a reminder of the vast experiences available to people prepared to set forth without a map.


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