“We, The Drowned” by Danish writer Carsten Jensen is an epic masterpiece in the tradition of Melville, but rendered in a modern style that’s darkly funny, often disturbing but always accessible


After the first chapter of WE, THE DROWNED, my impression was that I was reading a book by an author who is a basically a Danish version of our own Garrison Keillor here in Minnesota –a local guy offering folksy, funny, sometimes pithy tales of small town Scandinavians.

But the farcical beginning quickly gives way to a violent, bloody realism. Author CARSTEN JENSEN describes a horrific naval battle between a Danish ship and a battery of German artillery. There’s exploding bodies, gore, death and dismemberment, shock and anguish, followed by the psychological devastation and numbing humility of POW captivity.

And yet – mixed in with the realism is an element of the supernatural and dark comedy – but the mysticism is subtle and in the background. Both the realism and esoterica are handled with a cynical and sardonic humor that makes you wonder what the author is really trying to say.

We, The Drowned tells the story of the tiny village of Marstal, which is located on Ærø Island in the south of Denmark. (It’s a real place, although this is fiction). The story begins in 1848 and documents the life of the community through 1945. Marstal life has basically one vocation – seamanship. Every other occupation, from farming and blacksmithing, to local grocery and clothing stores, revolve around serving the values of sailors, ships and the sea.

The story begins and ends with war — the Danish-German First Schleswig War of 1848 and World War II. The vast middle of the novel, however, is not about war. Rather, it follows the individual lives of a selection of fictional citizens of Marstal. And it’s not just about sailing either.

Jensen devotes long sections to the life of Ærø Island boys – their impossibly Byzantine education in schools where severe corporeal punishment seems to be the entire purpose of primary education. The free-time of childhood is spent roaming the island as gangs of trouble makers. Just about all of the boys live without fathers most of the time – the dads are always away at sea. The sometimes comical, often brutal activities of youth are attempts to become men on their own, without the guidance of fathers.

I emphasize school-age “boys” because girls are all but absent from this tale. An adult woman take the stage in a supporting role about half-way through, but this is basically a book about boys and men – although I will say that women play a supporting role in a way that that at least acknowledges their influence in Marstal’s universe.

Carsten Jensen

I occurs to me that out of the more than 100 books I have read in the previous year, this 700-page epic is the most difficult of them all to review. It’s maddeningly difficult to pin down the essential soul of the book. (This is also what makes it a joy to read).

Here you’ll find page after page of delightful dark humor, but which gives way to black comedy that cries out at the meaninglessness of life. The characters often find themselves literally adrift or blown off course on an uncaring sea that feels free to kill them at random. The sea serves as the ultimate metaphor for the existential nightmare that is the fate of all mankind – a place where a caring God or rational explanation for life is entirely absent.

Jensen portrays human beings as greedy, lust-driven, violent pawns tossed about by the whims of fate — yet, he offers subtle hints that a higher order may be guiding the human race after all. In the darkest of times, the characters are sometimes granted glimpses of love and hope, especially if they act with courage and selfless bravery – but they just as often meet grotesque and horrifying fates – even when trying to behave with higher moral purpose.

Let me sum up this way: This book has the flavor of classics such as Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” –but rendered with a thoroughly modern literary approach that most closely resembles that of Kurt Vonnegut (especially his Slaughterhouse Five). Then throw in equally hefty portions of Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ole Rølvaag – and you get We, The Drowned.

Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

Follow @KenKorczak

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