Book review: Carsten Jensen's 'We, the Drowned'

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By Peter Behrens
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 21, 2011; 5:27 PM

WE, THE DROWNED

By Carsten Jensen

Translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 678 pp. $28

When was the last time you relished sitting down with a 678-page Danish novel? "We, the Drowned" might just be too much book to tote to the beach next summer, but it's powerful reading for a long winter's night. For many nights, in fact.

Carsten Jensen's epic unfolds across nearly 100 years, from 1848 to 1945. Interwoven stories play out in seaports all over the world, from Samoa to Newfoundland, but the men and the boys, and most of the women, are Marstallers, citizens of a tiny seafaring town on the Danish island of Aero, on the eastern side of the Jutland peninsula. The North Sea boils on the west, the Baltic on the east, and for centuries, Marstal ships - mostly wooden - sailed the seven seas. Marstal is Jensen's home town - and home port for this ambitious, restless, Nordic saga.

The story starts in 1848, as Marstal men are drafted onto Danish warships to fight Germany over possession of the disputed province of Schleswig-Holstein. Jensen's description of the Danish ship-of-the-line Christian the Eighth running aground in Eckernforde Fjord and being knocked to pieces by a German shore battery transcends anything Patrick O'Brian ever wrote about wooden ships and iron men. (And these Marstallers, by the way, are anything but iron.)

When the survivors are herded off the beach as prisoners of war, Jensen's prose - though occasionally overballasted with earthy Nordic irony - develops a bite and a scabrous, wandering beauty. "We'd stopped thinking in terms of victory or defeat," the narrator says. "Our battle was to escape the sight of the wounded, and questions rang in our heads like an echo of the destruction around us: Why him, or him?" At such moments "We, the Drowned" sets sail beyond the narrow channels of the seafaring genre and approaches Tolstoy in its evocation of war's confusion, its power to stun victors and vanquished alike.

The Marstallers who survive the battle in the fjord return home to do what Marstal men have always done: sign on as crewmen aboard ships that sail the world, leaving wives and children behind again.

One survivor of the 1848 battle happened to be standing on the deck of Christian the Eighth when she blew up. "Laurids Madsen should have been dead," Jensen writes. "But death didn't want him, and he came back down a changed man." Laurids comes home, signs on for a voyage and disappears.

But in a seafaring town, sailing away is only half the story; being left behind is the other half. Laurids's son, Albert, furious at being abandoned, searches for his missing parent across the entire Pacific. With shrunken heads, unforgiving seas and men unmoored from moral sense, "We, the Drowned" sometimes feels like a novel with Joseph Conrad at the helm. But the heart of darkness is never upriver: It's usually back home, in Marstal.

Far surpassing his father, Albert becomes a successful captain and ship broker, rich in the Marstal style. His ships ply the world, but he has no pretensions, no office and spends his days wandering the harbor, keeping all his accounts in his head. Building, owning and sailing ships are what Marstallers do, at least until wooden ships and wind give way to steel and steam.

During World War II, the Marstallers prosper by running German and English blockades, but dozens drown when their ships are sunk by U-boats or blown up by mines. Still, the town cemetery fills up very, very slowly - not that Marstal men don't die, but they rarely die at home. The town has struck a deal with the sea, or the devil. The two are just about the same, or so it seems to those left behind. Marstal, town of sailors, really belongs to wives, widows and orphans.

Laurids, his son Albert and a boy whom Albert almost adopts are all fatherless. Abandonment, kinship and destiny connect their densely interwoven stories. When a sailor's young widow inherits a fortune, she uses her newfound power to throttle the shipping industry that has made life in Marstal so prosperous, so deadly and so lonely for wives and children left behind. Her business partner finally grasps what she's doing - "You want the impossible! You want to whip the sea until it begs you for mercy" - but the realization comes too late.

This gorgeous, unsparing novel ends during the last days of World War II with a captain struggling to bring his crew home after their ship is torpedoed. The sea is Marstal's life and Jensen's unstrained metaphor: luring the Marstallers away from home, offering uncertain passage and providing few harbors that are safe for long.

Behrens's next novel, "The O'Briens," will be published next year.


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