Carsten Jensen’s debut novel has taken the world by storm. Already hailed in Europe as an instant classic, We, the Drowned is the story of the port town of Marstal, whose inhabitants have sailed the world’s oceans aboard freight ships for centuries. Spanning over a hundred years, from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War, and from the barren rocks of Newfoundland to the lush plantations of Samoa, from the roughest bars in Tasmania, to the frozen coasts of northern Russia, We, the Drowned spins a magnificent tale of love, war, and adventure, a tale of the men who go to sea and the women they leave behind.
Ships are wrecked at sea and blown up during wars, they are places of terror and violence, yet they continue to lure each generation of Marstal menfathers and sonsaway. Strong, resilient, women raise families alone and sometimes take history into their own hands. There are cannibals here, shrunken heads, prophetic dreams, forbidden passions, cowards, heroes, devastating tragedies, and miraculous survivalseverything that a town like Marstal has actually experienced, and that makes We, the Drowned an unforgettable novel, destined to take its place among the greatest seafaring literature.
A Q & A with Author Carsten Jensen
Q: We, the Drowned has become an international sensation. Are you surprised at the universal appeal of this story?
A: I had already worked for a couple of years on We, the Drowned when my female cousin asked me a very unsettling question. Do you really think, she asked me, that this novel of yours is going to interest anyone outside of our little island?
I could only say: I hope so, but there was no way I could know. I did everything I could to see the universal aspects of the history of a little seafaring town on a forgotten island in a remote corner of the Baltic. But I had to admit it was a very local story, and maybe that was what interested me: the meeting between the local and the global, because that is what the sailor is: somebody who goes everywhere. The sailor is a universal figure.
But writing a novel is always taking a risk. You never know whether there is anyone out there until you have tried reaching them. The sailor often sails into the unknown. So does the writer.
Q:What is it about sailing, the allure of the sea, that draws so many men, and you to write about it? What do you think is the modern equivalent of taking to the sea?
A: A farmer in a traditional farming community is not drawn to the soil. He has no choice. Neither had the sailors of Marstal. This was the only livelihood open to them. Whether they decided to enlist on the Seagull or the Albatros, that was all the choice they had. There was nothing romantic about it.
After the book was published I was invited to have coffee with the Admiral of the Danish Navy, Niels Vang, who turned out to be a great fan of the book. The only people today laboring under the same harsh conditions as the sailors in your book, he said to me, are professional soldiers. They are the only ones confronted with the possibility of dying on the job in the same way that your sailors were.
Q: You have called the sailor the forefather of globalization. Do you, as a journalist, relate to the sailor?
A: When the sailor returned to his hometown he knew one thing the farmers back home never knew: that there was more than one way of doing things. The farmer thought he was the center of the world, the sailor knew he wasn’t. I think this a healthy knowledge.
Q: How did you research the novel, which spans 100 years and many oceans?
A: I did a lot of research for the book, but I also made a lot of things up. I was helped by the sailor’s museum of Marstal, a totally homegrown, very eccentric museum. They have an amazing archive, and when I dove into it, I realized that within the last 20 to 30 years, one half of the inhabitants of Marstal have done nothing but interview the other half.
Then, together with the local public library, I organized a lot of town meetings where I read from the work in progress and explained my ideas. The people of Marstal, being very curious, showed up in great numbers. I made it clear to them that this was part of a deal: I would give them a book about their town, but I needed their help, too. So I was invited home, seated in the sofa, served coffee, and then I was presented with old letters, diaries, and unpublished memories meant for only the closest family. All this became a huge source of inspiration for me. It also meant that the whole town really ended up feeling that this was their book as much as mine.
And after the publication of the book, many of the townspeople told me that they had heard all the stories in the book as children, and I said: But you can’t have because I made them up. I was inspired, yes, but not to the extent that I just wrote everything I heard. But people could no longer distinguish reality from fiction.
Q: We, the Drowned is written in first person plural, as a collective consciousness of the people of Marstal. Why did you choose to write the book this way?
A: The "we" telling the story represents the collective memory of the town, but not everybody is included. It is the memory of the men, since the lives of men and women are so dramatically different in a seafaring community. The women have their own separate story slowing unfolding in the novel alongside that of the men.
The "we" is a kind of Greek chorus forever present on the stage, always commenting and introducing, but as a storyteller the "we" is also involved in the story, partial and taking sides, which means that it is not always reliable.
The "we" seems all-knowing, but how can it know the most intimate things that go on between people? Well, maybe it doesn’t know. What you don’t know in a small community you invent and that is also called gossip. Gossip is an essential part of people’s lives, and this is what I want my novel to mirror. It is full of real history, fiction, and gossip, too, because that is how the world works.