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We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen

We, the Drowned (original 2006; edition 2011)

by Carsten Jensen, Charlotte Barslund (Translator), Emma Ryder (Translator)

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7212913,038 (4.16)40
Title:We, the Drowned
Authors:Carsten Jensen
Other authors:Charlotte Barslund (Translator), Emma Ryder (Translator)
Info:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 688 pages
Collections:contemporary/ literary

Work details

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2006)

  1. 10
    The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx (Jannes)
    Jannes: Proulx focuses on one particular and personal fate, Jensen writes about a whole town in the voice of a vague, collective "we". The former places her story in modern-day Newfoundland, the later in 19th and early 20th century Denmark. What they have in common is the ever-present sea, its influence and demands, and how the people that relies on if for sustenance has learned to accept its whims and live with the consequences of a life at sea.… (more)
  2. 00
    In the Wake by Per Petterson (Limelite)
    Limelite: Norwegian writer; tragedy at sea but psychodrama, not saga. While an internal novel without the brutality of war, the atmosphere of Scandinavian love-hate relationship with cold seas is here.

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» See also 40 mentions

English (20)  Danish (2)  Spanish (2)  German (2)  Norwegian (1)  Swedish (1)  French (1)  All languages (29)
Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
Quite some time ago, I lived in a port that was visited annually by the remnants of the Portuguese White Fleet, a group of fishing vessels built for the age of sail, but modified for motors. The whole town looked forward to the arrival of these beauties. I've lived a good part of my life in another port, which annually observes Battle of the Atlantic Sunday to honour both combatants of the armed forces, and the so called non combatants who made up the Merchant Navy, who together formed the convoys supplying Allied Europe during World War II. The golden age of sail and the Atlantic convoys bookend the time span of We, The Drowned. Although the port in this case was Marstal, Denmark, all true ports have the same feel, so I felt right at home reading it.

The book opens in 1848, with a skirmish between Denmark and Schleswig Holstein. Laurids Madsen "...went up to heaven and came down again because of his boots." These boots will take on a mythical quality over generations for the seafaring people of Marstal. One of the ways this sense of myth is generated is by the frequent use of a first person plural narration, but the "we" telling the story is not the adults of Marstal, who might think they know it all; rather it is a succession of young boys who do much of the narration, with their necessarily imperfect knowledge of events, new ones gradually replacing those who grow up.

These boys know the world is the sea, that when they grow up Marstal will be the place to which they will return after each voyage if they are lucky, but that the sea will be their life. Marstal is for women, children, and seamen who have survived long enough to earn a berth on shore. The boys know some of them will drown, know their apprenticeship will be awful, but as small boys, they can't wait for the adventure of it all.

Much of the book revolves around Albert Madsen, four years old when his papa tru failed to return. Albert became one of Marstal's most successful citizens and his voyages were legendary. Then there were the stories about him and Captain Cook, a topic no one dared mention in his presence. On a voyage serving under one of fiction's most evil captains, Albert had time to reflect on what the sea means. His description is like no other: There comes a time in the life of a sailor when he no longer belongs ashore. It's then that he surrenders to the Pacific, where no land blocks the eye, where sky and ocean mirror each other until above and below have lost their meaning, and the Milky Way looks like the spume of a breaking wave and the globe itself rolls like a boat in the midst of the sinking and heaving surf of that starry sky, and even the sun is nothing but a tiny glowing dot of phosphorescence on the sea of the night.
As time goes by, Jensen replaces Albert with another young boy, the hellion Anton Hay. Even as the seagoing cycle repeats itself though, it changes inexorably. Sail is replaced with steam, steam with coal. The rhythm of the sailing life with its winter furloughs is replaced by year round commerce, as ships powered by engines are better able to withstand winter storms than those powered by sail. Wars come, one after another, and seafaring becomes something to be survived, there is nothing else involved in it.

Not everyone in Marstal is caught up by the sea. Just a mile or two inland are the farmers, seen as conservative and unimaginative by those who venture far from land. Farmers' boys and sailors' boys maintain their distance at school and at play. Then there are the women. Left alone with the children, sometimes for years on end, not knowing if their men will return, not all of them believe in the sea as a way to make a living. One of them believes she can actually wreak vengeance on it, a conviction that could be fatal to the town.

Told with a transparent love of ships and voyages, often with humour, We, The Drowned is at the same time an elegy to the age of sail, the men who sailed, and the ports they visited, no matter how desperate. Maritime freight commerce may be a huge industry today, but the way of life of shipwrights and sailors, of whole communities bound together for a common purpose, is gone. We, The Drowned is their resurrection.
10 vote SassyLassy | Apr 27, 2014 |
The epitome of tl;dr--but unfortunately for me, I did read this dull, ponderous epic about the sea. I will do my best not to hold a grudge against Denmark. ( )
1 vote thatotter | Feb 6, 2014 |
Amazing novel- I was hooked from the first line, and I loved every second of it. I'd love to be able to read it in the original Danish. I'll be looking out for more of Carsten Jensen's work. ( )
  psychedelicmicrobus | Feb 5, 2014 |
I found this a wonderful read. It's one that just kept me eagerly turning all those pages. It's a fine sea-going tale of generations of men in a small town that live and die on or under the sea. I've never lived on the ocean (just a lake in Vermont) but I now share the salty aired history of these characters. I've been thinking about this book ever since I finished it. The memories are good ones. Thoughts wash around in the corners of my mind and find themselves holding their own with some waves of thoughts from some of Melville. ( )
  jphamilton | Jul 1, 2013 |
Vast in scope and deep in emotion. Interesting characters who go through real life (not to be confused with realistic) changes. Great depiction of life at sea. ( )
  malrubius | Apr 2, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
When was the last time you relished sitting down with a 678-page Danish novel? "We, the Drowned" might just be too much book to tote to the beach next summer, but it's powerful reading for a long winter's night. For many nights, in fact.
Seagoing legends of Scandinavia ...The translation is, in the main, finely wrought, preserving both the elegiac lyricism and straightforward, sometimes violent energies of the book. I do wish, however, that American translators (or their publishers) were not so anxious about idioms. To have a young Danish sailor, in 1845, refer to “freezing my butt off” bounces this reader out of a believable book....That said, Jensen’s talent as a storyteller shines through. We, the Drowned is a huge achievement. A first novel, it’s such a large book that I hope the author has more to say. Whatever may follow, I am grateful, engaged and moved by what he has said here.

We, the Drowned makes us appreciate – in vivid detail – how our present lives in commercially successful societies at peace with each other rest even now on horrific exploitation of the inarticulate, often compelled to commit acts whose savage violence we would rather forget.

In this lies the book's principal strength....Every day gives us cause for fear and sorrow but, as on the celebratory one with which the novel concludes, we can defy them by "dancing with the drowned" because "they were us".


» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Carsten Jensenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Barslund, CharlotteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ryder, EmmaPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Many years ago there lived a man called Laurids Madsen, who went up to Heaven and came down again, thanks to his boots.
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Follows a century in the port town of Marstal on an island off the coast of Denmark, whose citizens' lives are indelibly shaped by forces ranging from wars and shipwrecks to taboo survival practices and forbidden passions.

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