Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review - Carsten Jensen, "We, The Drowned"

Quick, name a famous Danish author!

Well, you get two bonus points if you somehow came up with Søren Kierkegaard, one point for Hans Christian Andersen. But most likely, the names of renowned Danish wordsmiths aren't exactly rolling off your tongue. That's okay; Denmark isn't necessarily regarded as a literary powerhouse. 

So when a book like Carsten Jensen's We, The Drowned comes along, winner of every major Danish award, lauded as the best Danish novel of the past twenty-five years, et cetera, et cetera, one can't help but take this praise with a grain of salt. But one can see why the book has received so many accolades in its native country; it feels like the great Danish novel, the summation of a national identity. It's ambitious, wide-ranging, and has already been accepted by the Danes as a modern classic. 

The novel is sort of a Patrick O'Brian meets One Hundred Years of Solitude; it focuses on the small coastal village of Marstal, whose only resource is the sea, and whose only business is the shipping industry. It follows Marstal from the First Schleswig War in 1848 (I had to look it up too) to World War II. Packed into this century are more wars, economic booms and busts, prosperity and depression, and side trips around the globe to Samoa, Newfoundland, and Portugal. There's a few recurring motifs and a loose strand of connections tying the novel together, but for the most part, We, The Drowned takes delight in avoiding an overarching narrative, preferring thematic unity to a contained plot. 

As the title suggests, this is not a happy book. Jensen does his best to document the harsh force that is The Ocean, and the book abounds with descriptions of bruises battered with salt water, maritime hazing rituals, and more storms and torpedoes than one can count. Yet the characters in the novel keep being drawn to the sea by some force, even while the women of Marstal curse the business that keeps their men away from home.

We, The Drowned, situates itself as a sea-faring novel, and the book's dust jacket likens it to heavy company such as the Odyssey, Moby-Dick, and The Old Man and the Sea. Yet (and this could be an issue with the translation), Jensen's knowledge of shipping doesn't seem quite up to par with this claim; the sea-faring portions of the novel are by far the weakest. The descriptions of naval life feel like Jensen pulled a few factoids from a book, rather than incorporating larger bits of research into his story. 

Similarly, though Jensen's biography boasts bouts of journalism around the world, his prose turns awkward when writing about any location other than Denmark. The tropical locales of Samoa and Hobart Town come across as particularly uninspired to this Nordic writer; he writes Newfoundland a little better, possibly due to the similar climate. But for a sea-faring novel, the sense of place is decidedly off. 

This is a shame, because when the novel remains in the Danish town of Marstal, Jensen's writing is incredible. Not only is it Jensen's hometown, he spent time in the archives and museums researching its past. The fastidious research he boasts of pays off; Jensen's description of Marstal, a town that slowly, inexorably changes over a hundred years, is lovingly crafted. The cold nights, the foggy confines of the harbor, the politicking and lovemarking of Marstal's residents, all come across as remarkable detailed and real. Marstal is the real protagonist of the novel, a town that stands as a symbol for the whole of Denmark - small, often forgotten, relying only on its residents' knowledge of the sea and shipping to make a name for itself. As Jensen describes the subtle changes in Marstal with the arrival of a telegraph wire, or when sailing ships are replaced with steamers, there is clear affection for the place. 

If the novel had remained in Marstal, it would have been a better book. Alas, the action flounders whenever Jensen's numerous characters leave Denmark and travel the Seven Seas. What follows is a serious of short episodes, some of which work and some don't. High points include a story of children and their war against an abusive schoolteacher, the accounts of the different childhood gangs in Marstal, and the tale of an aging sailor and his love for a widow and her son. The low points include a remarkably strange journey to the South Seas, and the innumerable number of bloodthirsty sailors that every young Marstaller encounters on the ocean (in Jensen's world, every ship seems to be staffed by a well-meaning but ineffective captain, a murderous first mate, and a collection of scared young seamen). 

The novel also veers back and forth between realism and fantasy. The account of a young sailor looking for his father in the South Seas play out more like the fantastic, as does later when the same sailor has prophetic dreams about World War I. Yet other sections are played straight, as Jensen assiduously addresses the economic factors of the shipping industry, or provides graphically detailed descriptions of the cuts, bruises and welts that a sailor might endure. There's a strange change in tone, as if Jensen can't decide if his book wants to be a historical novel about Marstal, or a larger allegory about the world. 

It's this latter ambition that brings the book down. We, the Drowned is stuffed with Homeric allusions, and Jensen seems to desperately want his book to be accepted as part of the same pantheon of sea-faring literature. What could have been a remarkable book about the town of Marstal is instead a moderately good book that tries to encompass the whole universe. 

Perhaps the glowing reviews doomed We, the Drowned for me. It's a book that is well-worth reading, with some evocative stories and a few flashes of a true literary masterpiece. If only this Danish novel had stayed in Denmark, instead of trying to sail 'round the world.