Translated from Danish by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder, Carsten Jensen's 'We, the Drowned' tells the tales of tiny Danish coastal community of the seafaring town of Marstal. This town exists in Denmark, and it's also the author's hometown.The stories trace the lives of its people, Marstallers who have constantly lost sons, brothers, fathers and friends to war efforts and to the sea. (Reviews here, here and here.)
Split into four parts, the tales swirl around three generations of protagonists in Marstal across a century from 1848 (Denmark's First Schleswig War against Prussia) to World War II and its end in 1945. We hear about Laurids Madsen, his son Albert Madsen, and fnally Albert's foster son of sorts Knud Erik Friis. The narrator is a generic third party 'we'.
'We' begin with Laurids Madsen. After that war, Laurids Madsen took off for what appears to be another job, but after more than three years, he never returns. 'We' follow the adventures, growth, old age and death of Laurids' son, Albert Madsen and his peers through their school years, and their individual destinies. We hear about Albert's quest as a sailor because he wants to find his father whom he believes to be alive in another part of the world. Samoa. But Laurids Madsen is a broken man and isn't the father Albert remembers. They split and never meet again.
We move on to 1915 and the World War I. There's Albert Madsen's meeting with six-year-old Knud Erik Friis who just lost his father, Albert's subsequent engagement with Knud Erik's mother young widow Mrs Klara Friis. Albert didn't seem to want to set a date for marriage. He then seemed to have 'accidentally' died alone one evening in the mudflats. He left all his wealth and companies to Klara Friis who slowly grows into a shrewd businesswoman buying up land in Marstal. The epic then shifts to young Knud Erik who represents the new generation of Marstallers after World War I. We also hear about his childhood, his friends and his adventures as an apprentice sailor, in spite of his mother's violent objections to his career choice and hatred of the sea.
At this point, the Kindle told me that I had completed 70% of the book. So far, so good! My kind of bedtime stories. There's the matter of surviving the World War II. After sailing through the shipping routes ridden with depth charges, torpedoes and bombs, Knud Erik made it, and came ashore home to Marstal in 1945, with an old love Sophie Smith, her boy who was born underwater at sea when her ship was torpedo-ed and sunk, and his child in-utero. The final paragraph in the book celebrates the ceaseless tides of life, cruel and unyielding, but fulfilling and happy all at once.
And there, in the outer circle, with their faces half hidden by the fog, danced everyone who'd been away at sea for these five years of war.
So many of them had died. We didn't know how many.
We'd count them tomorrow. And in the years to come we'd mourn them as we'd always done.
But tonight we danced with the drowned. And they were us.