We, The Drowned

  • Carsten Jensen
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 675 pp.

Tales of one town’s enduring obsession with the seafaring life.

Reviewed by Solveig Eggerz

For centuries countless sailors from Marstal, Denmark, drowned in the insatiable sea. Wars compounded the loss of life from this maritime village (population today 2,315). We, the Drowned, by Marstal native Carsten Jensen, begins in 1848 with the war between Denmark and Germany over Schleswig-Holstein and ends during World War II. Jensen chronicles the lives of Marstal sailors starting with Laurids Madsen and finishing with Knud Erik, who emerges as the main character of this epic seafaring novel. The “we” of the title represents a collective narrator who is both a victim of the sailor-swallowing sea as well as the interpreter of the relationship between the sea and the suffering folk of Marstal. Through the narrator’s eyes, the reader witnesses how the Marstallers’ early enthusiasm for war is transformed to revulsion.

In 1848 Laurids Madsen arms himself with a broom to engage the Germans as the Marstallers enter war with a “general ecstasy: war was a thrill, a rush of schnapps that fired up our blood—-only the joy was wider and purer.” But the “hour of victory was marked only by the sound of men screaming.” And at the end of the battle, “The Germans had routed us, but their faces showed no signs of triumph. Horror at the unthinkable forces that war had unleashed united both victors and vanquished.”

When Laurids flees from Marstal to a Pacific island where men climb trees and bombard visitors with coconuts, he sets in motion one theme of the novel, sons seeking fathers. When Laurids’ son, Albert Madsen, finally finds his father, he discovers that his father has “new” children with the same names as his children in Denmark, a shocking lesson. People are replaceable.

Later as a sea captain and a ship owner, Albert must break the news to the family of sailors lost at sea. The narrator explains how Madsen’s words not only resign the Marstallers to their fate but also help them gain strength through community: “The captain’s message was simple: this is the way things are. He taught us a vast, all-embracing acceptance, which allowed life’s realities to come at us directly. The sea takes us, but it has no message to convey when its waters close over our heads and fill our lungs.” And community was where Albert, a man without family, placed his faith.  “It may seem like a strange consolation, but Albert’s words offered us a foothold: things had always been this way, and these were conditions we all shared.”

This is a story about sea-obsessed boys, how, ironically, their cruel upbringing shapes them for the hardships at sea. The sadistic schoolteacher, Isager, beats his pupils with a rope coiled in his pocket, “like a viper drowsy from the heat,” hardening them for life at sea where they’ll be beaten and kicked until they in turn can torture others. Dramatizing the traditional cycle of abuse, Isager “was unaware of the wickedness he’d sown in us….He planted a thirst for blood in us, one that could never be quenched.”

Hans Jorgen, often beaten bloody by Isager, philosophizes: “What’s the point of teaching us to do sums, or to read and write, when all we need to know is how to take a beating, if we want to get ahead? And when it comes to that, there’s no better teacher than Isager.”

But Knud Erik Friis, the son of a drowned sailor and foster son of Albert Madsen, is lured by the sea but, unlike his classmates he is neither defeated by early influences, nor bent on revenge. His mother, on the other hand, is an embittered young widow, whose need for revenge on the sea eclipses her love for her son. Klara Friis views the Marstal sailors as slaves to the sea. When she inherits a shipping fortune, her goal is to paralyze the fleet and thus free the slaves, especially her own son.

In her furious need for revenge, Klara is reminiscent of Claire Zachanassian in Heinrich Duerrenmatt’s play, The Visit, who returns as a millionairess to the tiny town of Guellen to take revenge for her personal loss.

To Klara’s sorrow, Captain Albert Madsen introduces Knud Erik to the sea, but he also nourishes the boy’s soul. Inevitably Knud Erik goes to sea and later becomes a captain of a ship. Will his spirit survive the brutality of life at sea and the horrors of war? Embedded in the adventure plot lies this question. It drives the story.

Herman, an ungainly boy, born without a conscience, nicknamed by the Marstal boys the “seagull killer,” appears and reappears throughout the story as a metaphor for evil. On a World War II supply run to the Soviet Union, Knud Erik is forced to take Herman on board. A triple amputee now, the venom-spewing murderer and rapist is unrepentant. But when the crew of the Nimbus welcomes Herman on board and nicknames him “Old Funny,” it becomes clear to Knud Erik that the war’s atrocities have so debased their consciousness that this vicious alcoholic simply blends into a pattern of horrible events.

A vivid image is that of the survivors of torpedoed boats bobbing in the water, the red lights on their life vests flickering in the darkness. As captain of the Nimbus, Knut Erik cannot save them. In fact, he hears their screams as they are chopped to pieces by the screw of his boat. His “wrecked conscience” threatens his life in a manner different from, but equally lethal as, that of the U-boat’s torpedoes.

This is a long book, and Knud Erik only gradually emerges as the main character. Thanks to Carsten’s vibrant storytelling, the reader cares deeply about the young sea captain’s internal struggle. With death all around, life makes its mark in surprising ways – and all these factors shape the sailor and engross the reader.


Solveig Eggerz is the author of the award-winning novel, Seal Woman, published in 2008 by Ghost Road Press. She teaches creative writing in the Washington, DC area. BUY THE BOOK from Politics & Prose

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