In the year of our lord 2006 an epic tale of seafaring and sailing, of love and war, of loss and renewal took Europe by storm, like a nor’easter gale enveloping a schooner. The book We, the Drowned , an impossible debut by Danish author Carsten Jensen was translated into English last year and despite benefitting from some incredibly positive reviews, has largely flown under the radar. But let me impart a bit of wisdom if I may. Do not sleep on this novel. It will easily be among my top ten of the year in spite of its girth (it weighs in at 688 pages).
The epic tale stretches from a comical skirmish between the Germans and Danes in the mid 19th century to the Second World War, traversing the earth multiple times in the middle, visiting such exotic locales as Samoa and Tasmania but always returning to the primary setting of the tiny Danish island of Marstal. Marstal, an island betrothed to sailing and shipping commerce, is an island where the bulk of the men sail nine months a year and women and children patiently and anxiously await their return. Many are widowed to the sea, raising boys who are anxious to return to the same sea that swallowed many of their fathers.
We, the Drowned is quite literally an epic. It takes its cues from what many consider the forerunner of the tradition, Homer’s Odyssey . The huge sweeping narrative of adventure in foreign lands is interspersed with a more meditative tone and outlook on Marstal. The author takes great pains to paint Marstal as a simple shipping island/village and does well to use Marstal as a vehicle to highlight anxiety caused by changing technologies, war, and the onset of globalization catalyzed by global commerce. Fans of The Old Man and the Sea, Melville, and adventure novels such as Treasure Island should dig Jensen’s We, the Drowned .