18 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

18 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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.

And yet, though We, the Drowned explores a wide range of territory, it’s actually compact in the way only Jensen can make it. A lot of ground, and yes, water, is covered. But Jensen builds an impressive edifice out of the Marstallers’ lives. What happened to them, we could say, happened to all of us.

Though there’s a large ensemble cast, the narrative circles around several key characters. First, there’s Laurids Madsen, a sailor with near superhuman powers. On the very first page of the novel he’s blasted into the air when his ship explodes at the end of a losing battle against the Germans, but he survives. Returning to Marstal, his status exulted by his near-death experience, he’s revered. Eventually, however, he sours of life in Marstal. He signs on to another ship and never returns. Then the narrative shifts to one of his sons, Albert—who even as a boy resembled his father—and he takes up the seemingly hopeless cause of finding the man who deserted him. In Albert’s narrative we meet a host of strange but delightful characters: the brutal schoolteacher Isager and his whip (who teaches hardness but not much else); first mate O’Connor who’s even more brutal than Isager; the con man Anthony Fox and the dastardly Jack Lewis who gives Albert a shrunken head he claims is that of James Cook. Midway through all this, as if to personalize Albert’s search for his father, the point of view shifts to first person singular:

I signed on for Singapore and from there to Van Dieman’s Land, to Hobart Town, the last port where my father had been seen. But it wasn’t just his final port: it was everyone’s dead end—and if it wasn’t yours, it soon would be, if you didn’t get yourself out in time. Picture the workhouse in Marstal: that’s what Hobart was like.

In literature as in life, finding a runaway father often leads to disappointment. Such is the case here for Albert Madsen (though for readers the high seas quest is rife with adventure). Before long—and returning home to first person plural—Albert is an old man serving as a father figure to a young boy, Knud Erik Friis, and as a reluctant lover to the boy’s widowed mother, Klara. When Albert dies—literally frozen to death in his father’s lucky boots—he bequeaths his fortune to Klara. And so begins the final stage of this book, with Klara and Knud Erik front and center.

Klara, a woman who lost her husband when his ship went down, wants to punish the sea for all the damage it has inflicted on Marstallers’ lives—particularly the town’s women. Ironically, she wants to use Albert’s fortune, built on the waves of the oceans, to end Marstal’s dependency on sailing. She visits a powerful businessman in Copenhagen named Markussen and tells him of her plan. He responds:

“Have you heard of Xerxes, king of Persia?” he finally asked. “Xerxes got it into his head to punish the sea because a sudden storm arose and destroyed his fleet before a decisive battle against the Greeks. His method was somewhat unusual. He had the sea whipped with iron chains. I’d say, Mrs. Friis, that you’re a modern-day successor to Xerxes” [. . .] “I hope you understand that your plans will have fatal consequences for your little town.”

She understands that only too well. But does her plan succeed? Well, I won’t give it away. You can decide for yourself.

All told, We, the Drowned is a tour de force, a colossus, that gives Americans an opportunity to witness the gears of a great writer at work, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Richly translated by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder so that obscure nautical terms like “ketch,” “old luggers,” “cutters,” “fore-and-aft schooner” flow naturally in translation. Sentence after sentence is strung together like bright bulbs of light. In his first work of fiction, Carsten Jensen creates characters with whom readers can empathize, and even the lowliest among them have real, identifiable motives behind their actions. This novel may be big and heavy, but it’s worth every single page.

28 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

OK, so longtime readers of Three Percent have probably noticed that I make fun of HMH a lot. Mainly because their website is a total pile of shit, and also because of how they treated Drenka Willen. (Seriously, even though the situation was rectified—thanks to the support of Saramago, Grass, etc.—someone’s going to burn in hell for that little move.) And to be honest, there’s a lot more to poke fun at, like the way Moody’s withdrew their credit rating, etc., etc.

But! There are awesome people who work at HMH—Drenka, Andrea Schultz, Sal Robinson, Ron Hogan, Jenna Johnson, others I’m sure I’m forgetting—and I just got their new catalog, which has way more international works that I ever would’ve expected. Granted, a lot of these are big-name, long-time HMH authors, but still, to lead off the catalog with two translations back-to-back is pretty bold for a press that’s also publishing Perfect One-Dish Dinners and Philip Roth’s new novel.

Maybe I’m just easily impressed, or maybe it’s because I’m (surprisingly) in a really cheery mood this morning, but, well, I just want to make up for (some) of the (occasionally) unfair criticisms I’ve lobbed at HMH.1 Y’all are doing good work. And as a way of trying to make up for this, here’s a list of all of HMH’s forthcoming international works:

The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).

Here by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.

A new book of poems by Wislawa Szymborska is a rare and exciting event. When Here was published in Poland, reviewers marveled, “How is it that she keeps getting better?” These twenty-seven poems, as rendered by prize-winning translators Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, are among her greatest ever. Whether writing about her teenage self, microscopic creatures, or the upsides to living on Earth, she remains a virtuoso of form, line, and thought.

The Box by Gunter Grass, translated from the German by Krishna Winston.

(This is the book I’m most excited about.)

In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives. Memories contradictory, critical, loving, accusatory—they piece together an intimate picture of this most public of men. To say nothing of Marie, Grass’s assistant, a family friend of many years, perhaps even a lover, whose snapshots taken with an old-fashioned Agfa box camera provide the author with ideas for his work. But her images offer much more. They reveal a truth beyond the ordinary detail of life, depict the future, tell what might have been, grant the wishes in visual form of those photographed. The children speculate on the nature of this magic: was the enchanted camera a source of inspiration for their father? Did it represent the power of art itself? Was it the eye of God?

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder.

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.

Your Republic Is Calling You by Young-ha Kim, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim.

Spanning the course of one day, Your Republic Is Calling You is an emotionally taut, psychologically astute, haunting novel that reveals the depth of one particularly gripping family secret and the way in which we sometimes never really know the people we love. Confronting moral questions on small and large scales, it mines the political and cultural transformations that have transformed South Korea since the 1980s. A lament for the fate of a certain kind of man and a certain kind of manhood, it is ultimately a searing study of the long and insidious effects of dividing a nation in two.

Solo by Rana Dasgupta.

(Not a translation, but international in scope and background, and it sounds interesting. Although I have to say that I’m not entirely buying David Mitchell + Alexander Hemon, but if that’s accurate, well then, this must be awesome.)

With an imaginative audacity and lyrical brilliance that puts him in the company of David Mitchell and Alexander Hemon, Rana Dasgupta paints a portrait of a century though the story of a hundred-year-old blind Bulgarian man in a first novel that announces the arrival of an exhilarating new voice in fiction.

In the first movement of Solo we meet Ulrich, the son of a railroad engineer, who has two great passions: the violin and chemistry. Denied the first by his father, he leaves for the Berlin of Einstein and Fritz Haber to study the latter. His studies are cut short when his father’s fortune evaporates, and he must return to Sofia to look after his parents. He never leaves Bulgaria again. Except in his daydreams—and it is those dreams we enter in the volatile second half of the book. In a radical leap from past to present, from life lived to life imagined, Dasgupta follows Ulrich’s fantasy children, born of communism but making their way into a post-communist world of celebrity and violence.

1 Apologies aside, your website still sucks.

....
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