Friday, 4 May 2012

We, the Drowned

We, the Drowned - Carsten Jensen
or...One Hundred Years of Sailortude - In which Scandanavian fiction takes sail on a fair wind from South America.

This is a strange and ambitious book - mixing history: economical, political, social and technological; with fabulous adventures on the high seas and moments of high comedy. My sense is that it would have more meaning for someone with a greater knowledge of Danish history (during two summers working in Copenhagen all I learnt was to understand people ordering pizzas in Dansk). It is a history of the town of Marstal and a number of it's inhabitants, a town dominated by the neighbouring sea, a town often left to women, children and old men as the men took to the high seas, often to be gone for years.

I am not saying, however, that this is a difficult or obscure book. It is in fact, rather a boys own adventure tale for much of it's 690 pages. War, shipwreck, schooldays, exotic intrigue, romance, the shrunken head of Captain Cook, more war, visions etc keep the story simmering. And much of the history is a shared history, that of technology effecting social change. The gradual but insistent move from wooden sailing ships to mechanized steel behemoths will effect the lives of generations of Marstallers. Indeed Marstal is still the site of a Maritime College and Shipyards.
Marstal Harbour today.
The timescale, approximately 100 years from the mid-nineteenth to the mid twentieth century, allows Jensen to connect the actions of one generation with the next, to show how childhood adventures can affect adult lives. Fortunes are built and lost, murder returns to haunt the murderer, a pair of boots drags their owner back from the gates of heaven, events cast long shadows, at one stage even future events cast a shadow back as visions of wars to come haunt one of the characters. The sea and the sailors that sail upon it place Marstal in the centre of world events, or at least bring world events to the streets of Marstal. "Albert Madsen didn't miss the sea. Howe could he, living in a world capital like Marstal? He could sit on a harbour bench and chat with Christian Aaberg, the first Dane ever to walk right across Africa,. Or with Knud Nielsen, who'd just returned after seventeen years on the coast of Japan. Half the male residents of the town had rounded Cape Horn, a perilous rite of passage for sailors the world over, and done it as casually as they'd take the steamer to Svendborg. Every street and lane in Marstal was in our back garden, and through the windows of our low-ceilinged houses we could see the Moroccan shore."

The sailors eyes allow us to see more of the world, and it's many ways. "A sailor knows from experience that there's no such thing as tradition. Or rather, that there are many kinds of tradition, not just his own. This is how we do it here, says the farmer on his ancestral land. Well, that's not how they do it there, says the sailor. He's the one who's seen more."

Although ships brought people all over the world they were, in  themselves like small kingdoms, often ruled by cruelty. Many of the key characters have key rites of passage at the hands of cruel first mates. But for most, at least, it was a rite of passage and not a lifelong trap. "He saw the cowed look in their eyes and their bowed backs and needed no one to tell him that they knew the thrashing rope." ... "'It never stops' was what Hans Jorgen had said. But it does. When you become an able seaman, when you're seventeen years old and big and strong enough to defend yourself, then it stops. Albert watched the black and brown men who loaded and unloaded the brig. They didn't have ownership of themselves, and they were forever in thrall to the rope. He wondered what would have happened if he'd been born one of them, to be flayed all the way to the grave. Would he have broken eventually? Or would he have looked for someone he could have passed his humiliation on to, just so that he could feel vaguely human? Would he have found a dog to kill, a house to burn down, a woman to drive mad?" There is a real sense through the book of empathy for those who are at the wrong end of the power imbalance. They are at the receiving end of everything from exploitation to brutality to genocide in these pages. The author's empathy is often hidden in the words of non-empathetic characters. "I've become an honest man. Only the stupid steal from the rich. The clever steal from the poor. The Law usually protects the rich."

There is a breakwater that protects the harbour at Marstal, a harbour built by the whole community. This seems to grow out of the comradeship that is often born on ships in the face of the implacable sea. "The mighty breakwater had taken the town forty years to build. It lay in the middle of the bay, more than a thousand metre long and four metres high, built from boulders each weighing several tonnes. Like the Egyptians with their pyramids, we'd built a vast monument of stone. Ours, though, was not meant to preserve the memory of the dead but to protect the living. Which made us wiser than them. The breakwater was the work of a pharaoh, Albert told us: a pharaoh with many faces. Together they represented what he called fellowship."

Any sense that we are getting a history or politics lesson is leavened by the storytelling. Jensen throws everything into the mix. Here is a list of thew source materials waiting to be explored, the contents of sailor's chests. "Everywhere they visited, there were sea chests filled with strange objects: shark jaws, porcupine fish, sawfish teeth, a lobster claw from the Barents Sea the size of a horse's head, poisoned arrows, lumps of lava and coral, antelope hides from Nubia, scimitars from West Africa, a harpoon from Tierra del Fuego, calabashes from Rio Hash, a boomerang from Australia, riding crops from Brazil, opium pipes, armadillos from La Plata and stuffed alligators." Each, we are told has a story attached.

Whether these tales are true or tall they are entertaining. One of the tales relates to the head of James Cook. "At one time no fewer than five heads were rumoured to exist in the Pacific region, all attributed to James Cook. But I found the real one. I've got sources. I finally tracked it down on Malaita. The chief who sold it to me was an educated man. He spoke and read English. He'd been taught by a missionary. Whom he later ate with great relish, or so he claimed. He knew exactly who Cook was and what his head was worth. Besides, he saw nothing barbaric in headhunting. 'I've read in your Bible,' he said, 'about David, the great warrior. After he defeated Goliath, didn't he cut off his head to show to King Saul?'" As well as providing a good story, Cook's presence in  the book (even in such a diminished state) links us to the time when the world was full of uncharted water and unexplored islands, a time when the sea was the romantic frontier. But as well as romantic, the sea was deadly, and the graveyard at Marstal held far more women than men, so many men having found a watery grave.

But fellowship and wisdom can't protect Marstal from war nor Albert from foolishness. He has dreams of ships sinking - "Finally it dawned on Albert what it all meant" - "He was foreseeing a war" - a war fought by "new floating war machines? The submarine seemed to be made in the image of a shark; while the torpedo boats resembled armoured amphibians. It was as if the entire modern war industry had taken as its templates the prehistoric monsters that had lived on earth millions of years ago." These will not be stopped by the breakwater.

Albert can't share these visions with anyone but the town fool feeling that "he, too, was entering the dark land of fools." In this dark land he seeks comfort but finds himself and his ways threatened. "A panting embrace in a darkened hall, a street fight: those were the perogatives of youth, not of age, and God help the old man who came too near youth and thought he could warm himself by its fire."

Generations die over the course of this book, many amoung them not living long enough to fear the foolishness of age. Death is a constant companion on a ship. "And what he contemplated was death. Some people complained when death came too early and claimed a child, a young mother or a sailor with a family to provide for. He'd never understood that. Of course it was a tragedy for those left behind and for the person who'd been robbed of the greater part of life. But it wasn't unfair. Death was beyond such notions. It seemed to him that the bereaved often gave short shrift to their grief in favour of railing fruitlessly against life's injustice. After all, no one would dream of saying that the wind was unfair to the trees and the flowers. True, you might feel uneasy when the sun switched off its light, or ice gave your ship a dangerous list. But indignant, outraged or angry, no. It was pointless. Nature was neither fair nor unfair. Those terms belonged to the world of men."

This was an enjoyable read, full of ideas and stories. I did feel that it wandered a bit too much at times and could have been cut back a little. This is a minor enough quibble though. The wide focus can also leave one with little or no connection to some of the characters but the real hero of this is the "pharaoh with many faces" and the sea itself.

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