What was it about?
We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen (tran. Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder) is basically two stories in one. The first half follows Albert Madsen through the turn of the twentieth century. The second half follows Knud Erik during World War II. At the start of the novel, Marstal, Denmark is one of the most successful ports in the world. Men are trained from a very young age for the violent life that is sailing. Albert’s schoolteacher is abusive; he flogs the students on a daily basis for anything and everything. When the boys are of age and begin to work as cooks on Marstaler ships, however, they realize that their teacher was only preparing them for the sea. Albert’s father Laurids was the sole survivor of the Christian the Eighth in the Danish-German war of 1848. He lives in Germany for a short time as a prisoner of war, but when Laurids returns to Denmark he can’t resume his former life. So he boards another ship, abandoning his wife and young children. When Albert turns fifteen, he decides to search for his father whom he still believes is living. Along the way, he meets a man who kills indigenous people and keeps a shrunken head on him at all times. He also falls in love with a widow.
Knud Erik also goes to sea at the age of fifteen, but the early twentieth century is nothing like the nineteenth. The shipping industry has undergone a transformation. Some of the most successful men in the business have never stepped foot on a ship. But although his father died at sea, Knud Erik wants to experience all of the things Albert experienced as a young man.
We, The Drowned not only tells the history of the shipping industry in Denmark through the eyes of two men, it also gives us a glimpse into the lives of the women the sailors leave behind.
What did I think of it?
We, The Drowned is written in the tradition of Moby-Dick and the Odyssey. It is more than a story about a handful of sailors. It is the story of a people. The sailors exhibit the most extreme form of masculinity in their society. They do not know how to love. The sea brings out their animalistic side. Survival is the only thing that matters in this society, and most sailors die in unmarked graves. Jensen could have written 700 pages of pure violence, but he doesn’t. There are beautiful moments in Albert’s life. Just when the reader feels that she can’t take any more of the violence or the romance, the story switches course. It’s neither sensationally violent nor sentimentally romantic. It is gripping without straining belief. The unpredictability of the sea is felt throughout the novel.
I was entirely immersed into the lives of Albert and Knud Erik. I cared deeply about their stories. To be honest, I preferred Albert’s life to Knud Erik’s. This may be because we follow Albert to old age, while Knud Erik remains a young man throughout the second half of the novel. Knud Erik is also somewhat of an unlikable character. While there were a few events at the end of the novel that felt a bit too coincidental, We, The Drowned is definitely one of the five greatest books I’ve read this year. Jensen knows how to write beautiful prose, but the prose doesn’t bring attention to itself. Except for a few places at the very end, I felt that the pacing was perfect and the characters were fully fleshed out. If you like seafaring novels, you will love what I now consider to be a Danish modern classic. The sea is the perfect environment I think to explore the complexities of human nature. This novel does it very well. It also has a beautiful cover.
“But that’s how it is on a sailing ship, and in this respect its journey parallels that of life: simply knowing where you want to go isn’t enough, because life is a windblown voyage, consisting mainly of the detours imposed by alternating calm and storm.”