The Long Way Home by Carsten Jenson
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The following excerpt serves as the introduction to Vi sejlede bare (2009; We just sailed)—Jensen’s elegant book on the making of We, the Drowned—coauthored by Karsten Hermansen, archivist of Denmark’s Marstal Søfartsmuseum (Marstal Maritime Museum). For more about the maritime history of Marstal, visit the museum’s website (in Danish), and check out our list of recommended maritime novels.
The story of Marstal’s rise and fall is closely bound to the history of sailing vessels. When these ships were in decline, because first the steamer and later the oil- and diesel-driven ships overtook the freight market, Marstal was also singing its swan song. And just as the final survivors of WWI were being interviewed a few decades ago, and as the survivors of WWII are being interviewed today, Marstallers knew there was something important that had to be preserved before it was too late. And so a small people’s army, guided by the Maritime Museum located on Prinsegade, went into the six small skipper homes on Færgestræder and out to Østersøhjemmet, a nursing home, equipped with tape recorders and notebooks.
“Here,” they said, “write down everything you remember from the days of glory. And if you don’t feel like writing then talk to the tape recorder. And if you have diaries and letters lying around, may we have your permission to look at them? But whatever you do, don’t go to your grave before you’ve told your stories one last time.”
And what is this history of Marstal?
It begins five hundred years ago, at about the same time Christopher Columbus discovered America. Back then Marstallers were what historians call strandsiddere, beach squatters, that is, those who were left over when the island’s land was apportioned. They settled on the long, sloping hill leading down to the Baltic Sea, the hill having no agricultural value, and it’s where they still live. Here they followed in Columbus’s footsteps. They not only discovered the ocean, they discovered their America. At sea there were no lords, no fences, no tiny, exhausted plots of land, no social hierarchies calculated to hold them down and squash their imagination and initiative. At sea they had the same boundlessness and freedom as in the future America. Here a cabin boy could become a captain if he wanted to, and if he was a Marstaller, he wanted to.
Marstallers were soon despised by their neighbors for their energy and ruthlessness. The town blossomed in the late 1700s. Then came the fatal war with the British, and Marstal sank into abject poverty, from which the town with its customary determination soon rose again. By their construction of a kilometer-long breakwater, the town provided their harbor protection from the forces of nature. They were denied help from the King. So they did the work themselves. For forty years they worked on the breakwater until finally it stood finished. They were, in a word that sums up their mentality and history, self-made.
They were that, and with the same energy and ruthlessness as always. To furnish the material for the breakwater they demolished the stone dikes around the island, relics from the time of the dukes. They also plundered the island’s Stone Age graves. They had little respect for the past. It was their own future that concerned them, and in the midst of their destitution they laid its foundation.
Almost forty years after beginning work on the breakwater, they did it again. Once more they accomplished the unforeseeable and epochal, and in so doing they helped safeguard their future. This time it was not an enormous, physically demanding, highly visible monument they built. For the most part it wasn’t even visible, and that was the point. They came up with the idea that the town needed a telegraph station. They requested help from the King, a new King this time, but just like the old one he refused. He might be King of Denmark, but Marstal lay beyond the range of his charge. So Marstallers saw to it that a telegraph cable was laid across from Langeland. As I said, they were self-made.
They were the inhabitants of a flyspeck on a tiny, neglected island in a forgotten corner of the Baltic Sea, so tiny, so neglected and forgotten that Germany, at the peace negotiations at the end of the war in 1864, overlooked Ærø, even though the island was historically linked to Schleswig, which was annexed to Germany, and therefore it would have only been natural if Ærø had been included. But the Germans forgot about Ærø, as the Danish king had.
The citizens of Marstal knew one thing: if they had a telegraph station they would no longer be living on the edge of the world. They would be in the middle, and they wouldn’t have to be content with hauling grain around the Baltic or in Scandinavian waters. The world’s markets would be open to them, and Marstal would find a new place, not on the map of Denmark but on the map of the world.
It was during this time that a Denmark traumatized by its monumental defeat at the hands of Germany found a formula for its survival as a nation, in introspection and pious self-adulation. “Outward loss, inward gain.” Marstallers did the opposite. They turned outward. They embraced the entire world at one time. And they also won inwardly, to boot.
Thirty years later there was only one city in Denmark boasting a larger merchant fleet than Marstal: Copenhagen. Denmark was filled with well-established harbor towns, many of them as old as the kingdom itself, all of them much larger than Marstal. But it wasn't Ålborg, Randers, Århus, Nyborg, Korsør, or Svendborg in second place behind the nation’s capital. It was that flyspeck Marstal, which given its population was still a speck, but by all other reckonings had grown into a cosmopolitan city of the world.
I began staying frequently in Marstal, and during my walks around town I made yet another discovery: in Marstal the television wasn’t the only source of entertainment. There was another screen, the living room window, from which one can look outside and see who is walking by. Now where could she be going—and at this time of day? The ferry’s departure from Rudkøbing was another high point of the day, topped in suspense only by the ferry’s arrival.
And now suddenly I was the one departing and arriving. I could feel the inquisitive eyes follow me around the streets. Something had to be done to relieve the tension building inside the Marstallers.
I went to the local library and allied myself with the staff. Together we held a series of meetings with the town’s citizens, where I initiated them into my project. I talked about my plans and ideas and read aloud excerpts from what I already had written. It became a local version of the TV-series Krøniken (The Chronicles), which was running at that time on the national station DR1, the difference being that here it was possible to peek into the writer’s workroom and follow a story that continually shifted form and direction.
I also made it clear that this was a two-way street. Marstallers got something out of all this, and I wanted something in return. At every meeting I had a list of things I wanted to know more about. During breaks I would be invited to someone’s home for coffee. Ensconced on the sofa with coffee and cake, I would be presented with a packet of letters. They might be Grandfather’s love letters to Grandmother, written as a young man in the 1920s while sailing the dangerous Newfoundland route across the North Atlantic. Would I like to read them?
Or an account written by an uncle who sailed during WWII. When he came home he couldn’t sleep at night, and his astute wife therefore suggested he write down his experiences to vent his pent-up emotions. He ended up with eighty typewritten pages, which no one outside the family had ever read. Was this something I was interested in?
Marstallers approached me on the street to ask which families I was writing about. I answered that all the characters in the novel were fictive, and besides, the novel wasn’t a family chronicle. “Well, but anyway,” they objected, and looked at me earnestly. They had a great-grandfather, uncle, or some other member of the family with an incredibly interesting story. They were sure I could find a place for him in my book.
Gradually I got the impression that for some people the book was like a corporation, and you could buy shares of stock in it. I had to explain to the Marstallers that yes, it was their history, but it was my book, and that I was immune to any and every form of bribery.
A certain group of engaged participants always showed up at the library meetings. Invariably they sat in the back row of the room, their presence never in doubt because of the distinctive sounds they made. They were the senior women of the town, and they knitted, energetically clicking away all evening long. Silence came only when I asked a question. The knitting sank to their laps, all hands were hoisted into the air. They had seen everything, they had heard everything, and they remembered it all. These elderly women were the Marstal equivalent of the Danish Encyclopedia.
I can cite an example of their vast knowledge. There exists a quarterly periodical written for presumably the most unhappy people on earth, natives of Ærø forced to live in exile. The name of the publication, logically enough, is Ærøboen (The Ærø Native). It prints a regular column called From Over There. This column supposedly provides its readers with unbiased information. In reality it is juicy gossip.
In my quest for inspiration I have read every volume from eighty years of this local gossip rag, and in an entry from May 4, 1945, something caught my eye. A woman on Møllergade had been picked up by the authorities; from her balcony, with a loaded gun, she had threatened a street crowd assembled in front of her house.
During a meeting I asked if any of those present could help me with an explanation of the woman’s dramatic behavior.
Immediately silence fell upon the back row, knitting sank onto laps, and every hand shot into the air. The representatives of the Marstallian Encyclopedia knew not only who the woman was. They not only knew her name and age (it was, after all, merely sixty years ago). No, they also knew something even more important to the story. They knew her weight.
As it happened, she weighed a lot. That was one thing about her. Another was that she was very favorably inclined toward men. Many cultures exist where these two things, being fat and man-happy, are a fortunate combination. It just so happens that it wasn’t at this particular time in Marstal, and the woman on Møllergade therefore led an unsatisfactory life until one fine spring day, when literally boatloads of energetic young men arrived on the island, men who weren’t particularly critical about the appearance of the opposite sex as long as they were willing, which the woman on Møllergade was. Five happy years followed for her, years the rest of the Danish population called the five miserable years. It was the Occupation we’re talking about here, the handsome young men were German soldiers. But everything comes to an end, even the best things in life, also for the woman on Møllergade. She did have the foresight to demand a gift from her last lover, a pistol with ammunition and instructions on how to use it.
May 4, 1945, after the message of the Liberation was broadcast over Radio London, the existence became known of a group of men in Marstal who were expert at keeping a secret. Namely, that they were enemies of the Germans. No one else in town had been aware of this, least of all the Germans. When the German army capitulated these men boldly stepped forward to reveal their true Danish faces, before closing ranks and setting out for Møllergade, where justice at last would be served and the enemy is dealt a decisive blow. But the fat woman was ready. She stood on her balcony and aimed her pistol menacingly at them, whereupon they all remembered urgent errands somewhere else in town. From what I have been told, this is how she avoided having her head shaved and being paraded naked through the streets with swastikas painted on her exposed body. And this is how a flock of good Marstal citizens were prevented from proving their courage, which must have been huge since none of it had been used up for five long years.
This episode is, however, not in We, the Drowned. The novel begins in the spring of 1849 and ends at precisely 8:30 p.m., May 4, 1945. The fat lady first waved her gun an hour later, thus missing out.
Often I’m asked what is real and what is fiction in We, the Drowned. In other words: what did I find in the archives and what did I just make up?
Usually I answer that in this case a simple rule of thumb applies. The more unlikely it sounds, the more you can be sure it really happened. The more commonplace and banal it sounds, the more you can be sure I made it up. The reason behind this is what I call the anecdotal structure of autobiographical accounts.
What do I mean by that?
If I ask an old sailor from Marstal to tell me about his life, he will of course begin with his childhood, but all he will talk about are his pranks. His time in school, his relationship with his mother who had to run the household by herself, his usually-absent father and how he missed him—none of this is something he will say much about. But the time he blasted a porcelain insulator off a streetlight pole on Møllevejen with his cousin’s shotgun and the lights went out in half of Marstal—now that he will give a detailed account of. The same pattern emerges when I ask him to tell about his years at sea.
He will remember a shipwreck off the rocky coast of Newfoundland, a torpedo attack or a mine exploding during WWII. His face will light up when he tells about an incredible barroom brawl in Buenos Aires, and should the wife slip into the kitchen for a few minutes to make coffee and prepare the cakes, he will lower his voice and abandon himself to memories of the beautiful women in Mexico’s seaports.
Table of Contents
SPECIAL SECTION: German Crime Writing
Guest edited by J. Madison Davis
- Introduction, J. Madison Davis, guest editor
- FICTION: Lisa Lercher, "Forty-three-year-old woman seeking..."
- ESSAY: Beatrix Kramlovsky, "Show Your Face, oh Violence"
- ESSAY: Almuth Heuner, "Germany's Crime and Mystery Scene"
- FICTION: Nina George, "The Light in the West"
- ESSAY: Hughes Schlueter, "The Grand Duchy Strikes Back"
- ESSAY: Paul Ott, "Murder in the Alpenglow: Swiss Crime Writing in the German Language"
- ESSAY: Thomas Przybilka, "A Resource for Lovers of Crime Writing: The Bonn Archive of Secondary Crime Writing Literature"
SPECIAL SECTION: World Cup/World Lit 2011
Guest edited by John Turnbull
- Introduction, John Turnbull, guest editor
- INTERVIEW: John Turnbull, "A Conversation with Nalinaksha Bhattacharya"
- FICTION: Nalinaksha Bhattacharya, "Hem and Football" an excerpt
- POETRY: Mona Nicole Sfeir, "Laws of the Game (adapted from FIFA 2010-11)"
- INTERVIEW: Sandra Kingery, "A Conversation with Ana María Moix"
- ESSAY: Jennifer Doyle, "Soccer, Art and Desire"
- INTERVIEW: John Turnbull, "A Conversation with Elísabet Jökulsdóttir"
- ESSAY: Clarice Lispector, "Armando Nogueira, Soccer, and Me (Poor Thing)"
- WLT Online Book Club: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
- Author Profile: Jonas Hassen Khemiri
- Czesław Miłosz Centennial
- City Profile: Tallinn, Estonia
- Raquel Chalfi, "Double Exposure in the Black Forest"
Q&A: WLT INTERVIEWS
- Ray Taras, "A Conversation with Carsten Jensen"
WEB EXCLUSIVES: MARITIME READING
- READING LIST: More Maritime Reading
- PHOTO GALLERY: Marstal Maritime Museum Photos
- EXCERPT:Vi sejlede bare (2009; We just sailed) by Carsten Jensen
- POETRY: "The Castaway"by Alessio Zanelli
OUTPOSTS: Norwich, Norfolk
- Norwich, Norfolk