Monday, December 10, 2012

We, the Drowned

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Title: We, the Drowned
Author: Carsten Jensen
Year: 2010 (English)
Genre: Historical, exploration
Rating: 1

What do we base our identities on? Does the shape of the whole define the shape of each individual, or the other way round? Perhaps both.
W.B. Yeats once wrote, 
              The finished man among his enemies? 
                    How in the name of heaven can he escape
        that defiling and disfigured shape
 the mirror of malicious eyes 
          casts upon his his eyes until at last 
                 he thinks that shape must be his shape?
                            And how in the name of heaven can he escape
            if honor find him in a wintry blast? 
--A Dialogue of Self and Soul
  Carsten Jensen's seafaring novel We, the Drowned not only explores the ending days of sailing ships and the Danish world, but also delves into the heart of those questions that purse us every time that something ends. Where do we go from here? What am I without it? 
Told from the perspective of no particular character, only the we of the town, the novel tells the story of a Danish seafaring town called Marstal off the northeastern coast of Denmark. For generations, men and their sons and their grandsons have gone to school until confirmation, then taken to the decks of ships to sail around the world, only returning once every two years or so. Those left behind, the mothers and children and parents, wonder if they will ever see their sons again, but have to learn to live around it-- Marstal is a seafaring town. The men take pride in it, and don't care if they drown. To them, that's just collateral damage in their line of work.
The book tells the story of Marstal from 1848 until the end of World War II, sharing the lives and adventures of several people along the way, but never from their perspective. It is always the townspeople sharing the story from the outside, as if they were reading diary entries or sharing the tales over beer in a pub. We begin with Laurids Madsen, the heart of Marstal seafaring, a man who trusted nothing save his own skills and his sea boots. He disappears into the South Pacific, and fifteen years later, his abandoned son Albert goes looking for him to give his family some closure. We trace Albert's life from beginning to end, and we meet Knud Erik, a boy who was denied the sea by his mother, and wanted the adventure with his whole heart. Dozens of other names float by, like acquaintances we only knew a little, living their lives and passing away as time goes by.
The first chapter is a bid muddled, as you are walking in on a complex world that you know very little of, but everything soon falls into place. The crew is the "we" in this case, and they tell the stories of the legendary Laurids Madsen, like a hero that they all knew, who did nothing more than survive. That is the legacy of Marstal-- those who survive are the heroes.
The greatest majority of the book, though, involves Albert. After becoming a hero for sailing the South Pacific and returning with tales of cannibals and shrunken heads, Albert watches his friends die and his town grow old, and he can do nothing to stop it. He watches his own life drift idly by after he comes ashore, constantly longing for the danger of the sea, and conflicted by his own desire. After all, who is he without the sea? He is a sailor, and if he no longer sails, he's drifting.
Knud Erik, too, is an vividly living character, full of latent desire, suppression, and longing, pursued by his own dreams. He was shaped from a young age to love the sea and sailing, and once he reaches it, it's so different than his expectations that he's not sure what to do. His whole life has been about sailing, and when his desires change as he ages, he falls stagnant, trapped by his achievement.
Jensen is brilliant. Even though We, the Drowned has been translated from the Danish, it reads smoothly and beautifully in English, even the idioms and quotes falling into place. He clearly has a passion for this town and its history, and as he grew up there, he understands the dreams of the people and the things lost. Marstal comes to life in its biography, fraught with danger and very real characters.
The novel is gritty, dark, and gruesome where it needs to be, but no more so than necessary to be real. Many times adventure novels become romanticized, and while this book has its fictional elements, the core of it is so deeply human and real that even the words of the characters come to life. Every Marstaller walks the streets, warm with the blood of their ancestors that we knew, full of the dreams that they know will never come true.
The core is all about identity. We all know that nothing lasts forever, even if we hope it will, and life is all about learning to say goodbye and change ourselves. Marstal faces the extinction of its way of life, and even though the men are the greatest sailors in the world, they cannot stop the end of the sailing ship as they had known it for centuries. Laurids' identity is in his thirst for adventure, and it ruins him; Albert's identity is in his skill and experience as a sailor, and once he retires, he is forced to change himself. Knud Erik's identity is in his dreams and ambitions as a sailor and defiance of his mother. There is a drawing point where each man must face failure or change, and some do, but some fade away.
The second chapter is the most strikingly poignant. We are placed amongst the schoolboys of Marstal, tortured by Isager, the abusive schoolteacher. He teaches them to accept pointless abuse, because that is what they will get aboard ships their whole lives, and the readers recoil against it. And rightly so-- it is horrific, but real. In the middle of the chapter, the boys have a quiet moment, and they say poignantly,  "We committed appalling acts and only realized the horror of what we'd done when we stood gathered around the evidence of our atrocity. Violence was like a drug that we couldn't relinquish. He planted a thirst for blood in us. One that could never be quenched."
In addition to the brilliant main characters, every side character is unique and colorful. Jensen has painted a full picture of a town, leaving no one out and nothing corrected. For example, Lorentz, a contemporary of Albert, is constantly seeking acceptance and only learns to accept himself by years of rejection. Another striking character that is nearly impossible to sort out is Herman, a darkly suspicious man who does what he will, but he is still a Marstaller and therefore "one of us."
At 678 pages, We, the Drowned is a hefty novel, but it wastes no time on unnecessary moments. Capturing the very real parts of life is the challenge to the novelist, but Jensen has done it so poignantly that his work will survive amidst names like Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Odyssey.
Available for just $9.32 from the Kindle store, We, the Drowned is one of the best books I've ever read. I have a deep fondness in my bones for seafaring novels (stemming from a childhood copy of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch) but this one goes even deeper. Because of its raw emotion and beauty, this novel will live forever in the hearts of those who quest for adventure and identity. We all want to know who we are, and we belong to each other just as much as everyone belongs to us.

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