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Latest Review: "We, the Drowned" by Carsten Jensen

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by K.E. Semmel on Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned, now available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder’s translation from the Danish.

Jensen’s book has been getting a lot of good attention—especially from booksellers—but another reason we really wanted to run a review of this is because he’s going to be here in Rochester on May 2nd as part of the PEN World Voices Festival, where he’ll read at Writers & Books along with Marcelo Figueras and Najat El Hachmi. We’ll post more info about this in the next few days.

K.E. Semmel is the Publications & Communications Manager of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. He’s the recipient of translation grants from the Danish Arts Council, and his translations of the work of Danish authors Simon Fruelund, Pia Tafdrup, and Jytte Borberg have been published or are forthcoming in numerous literary journals. His translation of Karin Fossum’s The Caller will release in the UK this July.

Here’s the opening of his review:

We who are alive in the age of the eBook may not be used to reading 675 page sea adventure tales. When we think of such novels—at least here on these shores—we probably think of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, venerable writers who penned some of the most enduring American classics of the genre. Though Denmark is one of the greatest seafaring nations in the history of the world, we typically don’t think of Danes when we think of the literature of the sea. Carsten Jensen’s fabulous first novel, We, the Drowned, should change that.

For three decades, Jensen has been one of the finest commentators in Denmark, distilling meaning out of everything, from political events to world developments, in his newspaper columns. With his deft touch, ordinary stones dazzle with sharp, brilliant light. Back when we still lived in Denmark, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Politiken just so I could read his column. Over the years, many of these short pieces have been collected into books (and two of those titles have been translated into English).

But in 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).

Whew. That’s sure a lot.

Click here to read the full review.



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