We, The Drowned

It's tempting to call this immense and immensely engrossing novel a Danish One Hundred Years of Solitude. Covering a century in the life of the shipping and trading town of Marstal, We, the Drowned certainly contains a number of magic realist moments, starting with its first sentence: "Many years ago there lived a man called Laurids Madsen, who went up to Heaven and came down again, thanks to his boots." In subsequent pages a charismatically amoral villain uses pearls as bullets, we learn the destiny of the shrunken head of Captain James Cook, people are nearly smothered to death by swarms of butterflies, a snowman turns out to be a corpse covered in ice, a wealthy shipbroker's dreams reveal the deaths awaiting his townspeople, an obsessed woman decides to punish the sea, and in a moment of reckless courage, a despondent ship captain dives into the North Atlantic to rescue a torpedoed vessel's single survivor—who turns out to be his long-lost love.


Yet Carsten Jensen's book is too good to be reductively relabeled One Hundred Years of Sailoring. First of all, Marstal isn't Macondo; it's a real Danish port, and the novel adapts actual events from the city's history. Second, Jensen's book more properly belongs to the classic European tradition of the multi-generational historical novel: at times it calls to mind Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, at others it reads like a tightly packed one-volume condensation of Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle.


While the narrative thread focuses on the sailors Laurids Madsen, his son Albert, and Albert's adopted son Knud Erik, the book is also something of an anthology of set pieces: individual chapters depict brutalized childhoods, there's a Somerset Maugham-style tale of the South Pacific and a Jack Londonish short story about a murderous first mate; several sections reveal the loneliness and suffering of the wives left behind in Marstal; and there are extended accounts of the horrors of battle at sea, from the early 19th century through World War II. Very seldom does any individual's story end quite as he, she, or the reader expected: instead, life just goes on.


That explains, in part, the novel's unattractive title, We, the Drowned. Told neither from an omniscient Olympian point of view nor in a memoirist's first person singular voice, the book is narrated by a collective "we." In effect, the story is related by a chorus, like those in ancient tragedy, and one that not only sets down events but also comments on their implications. By the end of the novel, however, that "we" has grown to encompass more than the group memory of the Danish port city of Marstal. We, the Drowned points to the ultimate fate that awaits us all on life's voyage. As Jensen succinctly puts it:

            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.

As you might already suspect, the novel's vision of life is hardly cheerful—good people die, evil is sometimes punished and sometimes not, the past poisons the present, and even innocent pets come to grotesque ends. Jensen is clearly kin to such melancholy Danes as Hamlet and Kierkegaard. Death haunts these often doleful pages:

            The merciful comfort of a grave to which you can take your children and tell them about their father in front of the headstone that bears his name, the possibility of distracting yourself by clearing weeds or perhaps disappearing into a whispered conversation with the man who lies underground—a sailor's widow is denied all that. Instead she receives an official document declaring that the ship her husband was working on, or perhaps skippered and owned, has been 'lost with all hands,' gone down on this or that date, in this or that place, often at a depth beyond salvaging, with fish the only witnesses. And she can put that piece of paper away in a drawer of the bureau. Such are the funeral rites awarded to the drowned.

At best, cold comfort is allowed the bereaved of Marstal, that which arises from clear-eyed understanding: "The captain's message was simple: this is the way things are. He taught us a vast, all-embracing acceptance, which allowed life's realities to come at us directly. The sea takes us, but it has no message to convey when its waters close over our heads and fill our lungs. It may seem like strange consolation, but Albert's words offered us a foothold: things had always been this way, and these were conditions we all shared."


At first We, the Drowned seems almost plotless, but gradually patterns, leitmotifs, and symbolic objects (the magical sea boots, James Cook's shrunken head) begin to recur, so that the book emerges as an exploration of what one might call life's connectedness. Jensen clearly relishes the strange conjunctions of time and chance. His book is full of coincidence, undeserved luck and unexpected misfortune. Laurids Marsden disappears, and his son Albert roams the earth searching for him. A generation grows up and dies, as a new generation is born with the same dreams of life and adventure. We are linked, moreover, not just by blood or affection but also "through the hurt we inflict on one another." Wars erupt and destroy lives and families—again and again. People fall in love and usually things don't work out. While his betters die young, the most hateful character in the novel survives, and his survival turns out to be a kind of blessing. One simply never knows. When a civic-minded shipowner erects a town monument—emblazoned "Strength in Fellowship"—he lives to see the hollowness of its words.


Life is gray and hard in Marstal. As one bitter woman says: "You call Marstal a sailor's town, but do you know what I call it? I call it a town of wives. It's the women who live here. The men are just visiting." Even lovemaking is seldom joyous, usually being marked by violence or likened to drowning, two people dragging each other down into the depths. The town preacher actually shrinks from the grief of his parishioners. One group of children, tormented by a sadistic schoolmaster named Isager, is mystified by a supposedly admirable Old Testament figure:

"We knew all about Jacob: we'd paid attention. We knew that he was an impostor who stole from his own brother, the hairy-armed Esau, and lied to his father, the blind Isaac, and sired children by four different women, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, and that when one proved barren, he would simply move on to the next, and that he had a fight with an angel that left him with a limp, but that later he was blessed by God. It was a peculiar story, but none of us dared point out its oddness to Isager."

Despite its Baltic gloom and occasional longueurs, We, the Drowned markedly possesses the one essential narrative quality, what adventure novelist Rider Haggard called grip. Jensen can tell a story, and even in translation—what seems to me a very fine translation—the novel seizes hold of the reader and doesn't let go. Along with tales of war, coming of age, life at sea, and sudden death, the book presents three very different and moving love stories against the changeover from sail to steam to diesel engines.


Still, one misses some lightness and laughter. After all, there's more to existence than disappointment and suffering. Or is there? When the pain or desperation is too great, Jensen's characters simply ship out or run away or start drinking and whoring. Wryness is the book's substitute for humor: "Without discussing it with his mother, Anton went up to his teacher, Miss Katballe, and informed her that after seven years he was now quitting school. It was the best day of her life, she replied. With unexpected politeness he bowed, thanked her, and said, likewise."


Why should you give this fine, if hardly sunny, novel a try? Joseph Conrad once said that a man who is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. Jensen shows us the dreams of dozens of people, and what those dreams lead to. His final chapter, "The End of the World," is as shocking and thrilling a short novel about men at sea during World War II as any you will ever read. Still, the loneliness in Jensen's book, as well as its savagery and stoic, even heroic attitude toward life, may not be to everyone's taste. Like Sam Peckinpah's film "The Wild Bunch" or Cormac McCarthy's epic Blood Meridian, these pages never flinch from anything. This is how things are. Carsten Jensen's international bestseller isn't just a book about Danish sailors, it's a novel about what one must call—and forgive the grandiose phrase—the sorrowful human condition. To those with eyes to see, we are all, as the poet Stevie Smith observed, "not waving but drowning."

About the Columnist
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays. His most recent book is Classics for Pleasure.

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