We, the Drowned

In 2007, the Danish Literary Magazine published a short review of Carsten Jensen’s epic Novel of the Sea, Vi de druknede (English translation, We, the Drowned). The novel, according to reviewer Anne Mette Lundtofte, presented a unique portrait of Danish history and culture:

“As Jensen plays with the history of European Enlightenment in We, the Drowned, he also turns the Danish national consciousness upside-down. He doesn’t depict the Danes like a homey culture of earth-bound farmers, as is usually the case in history books, but as a wild bunch of restless sailors. This new perspective on a small country has in turn made the book popular on the international market, where it has sold to 11 different countries, including England and the US. The book’s English editor, James Gurbutt, attributes this success with the novel’s ability to connect the local history of Marstal with world history through universal and current themes…”

My appetite whetted for wild, Danish seaman and raucous adventuring, I spent the next couple of years eagerly awaiting what sounded like the imminent English translation and publication of the book. Thinking perhaps England published the translation first (they are often ahead of America with Scandinavian translations), I scoured UK booksellers’ websites, and even made a point of checking for English translations of the novel all over Copenhagen when I visited years ago. But alas, the translation was simply not available and I gave up looking.

But, huzzah! We, the Drowned has finally made it to the US! And, according to the review published by Three Percent earlier this week, it was worth the wait. According to K.E. Semmel, a translator from Danish (and Norwegian, apparently–he has a translation of a Karin Fossum novel, The Caller, forthcoming) We, the Drowned will establish Denmark in American readers minds as “one of the greatest seafaring nations in the history of the world,” while also giving us an expansive, multi-generational adventure, much of which is narrated in the first person plural (which: whoa). Says Semmel:

“[I]n We, the Drowned, Jensen gives us the big story. The inhabitants of the town of Marstal, on the island of Æro, have been seafarers for generations. They live and die by the code of the sea. Jensen writes in the communal first person plural, with its distinctive and authoritative “we” lending a familiar sense of intimacy, and starts his story in the year 1848. Like the docent in a fine museum, he then leads us through the next 100 years in Marstal’s history. That history is extraordinarily rich, and includes Denmark’s Three Years’ War (1848-51) with the Germans, two world wars, the rise of late capitalism and concomitant descent of the very life-blood of Marstallers’ lives, the sailing industry, and finally the ascendency of globalization (though the “g” word is not used).”

I have been lucky enough to be given a copy of Jensen’s novel–now I just have to find myself the mood/time/weather for such an expansive story (these things really do make a difference). Perhaps this will be my Big Summer Read.


One thought on “We, the Drowned

  1. Our library has “I have seen the world begin” in stock, another of Carsten’s books, and “We, the drowned” is on order. Somebody is paying attention to the world lit scene.

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