EXCERPT: Vi sejlede bare (2009; We just sailed) by Carsten Jensen
The Long Way Home by Carsten Jenson
Page 1 of 4
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.
There are several reasons why I chose to write a novel about the sailors of Marstal.
One reason is entirely banal and obvious. I was born on Ærø, the island on which Marstal is located. I spent half my childhood in the town, far and away the best half, I might add. My father was a sailor just like the sailors in We, the Drowned, and I have always felt a debt of gratitude to the town and its people. How do you pay back such a debt when you are a writer? With your words, of course.
But if my memories had been all that led me to write We, the Drowned, it would have been an autobiography, not a novel.
Another reason is what I would call historical—and possibly a little bit political. If an average, ordinary Dane from a few generations back, in the 1950s, had been asked what sort of country Denmark was, they would have answered without the slightest hesitation that we were a seafaring nation. It wasn’t because more people worked in the merchant fleet of that era, because even back then the number was modest. It was a unique self-image we had as Danes, which also is reflected in, for example, the royal anthem, “King Christian stood by lofty mast.” The Danish path to power and glory lay over the ocean.
Ask the same question today and you will get a completely different answer. The initial response will be obviously correct: we are a welfare state— and if the person being questioned is a bit sophisticated, they will thoughtfully add: a post-industrial welfare state. Should the question be more explicit as to our historical identity, the answer will be dramatically different from the typical Dane’s answer fifty years ago. Modern Danes no longer speak of Denmark as a seafaring nation. We were a nation of farmers, they will say. There is where we come from. There, in the soil, are our roots.
This shift in Danes’ self-perception as a nation has many causes. For a good number of years we have been governed by a party with roots in the farming community. Grundtvigianism has always been the Danes’ preferred ideology; the clergy is becoming increasingly visible in the media. These are all voices belonging to the rural farming culture. When people become obsessed with their ethnic origins, as Danes have in the past several years, our so-called Danishness, it is more natural for them to find answers in plow furrows than at sea, for the sailor gives vague, uncertain answers when it comes to national identity.
We suffer from historical amnesia. I consider it to be a tragic loss of memory, because it takes place at the most inopportune time in our history, the moment when a trend for which we have only a foreign word—globalization—confronts us with the imperative that, like it or not, we must learn to live with this trend and with foreigners.
The farmer was never much good at these things. He barely knew of the foreigners’ existence, keeping instead to his own kind. The sailor sought out the foreign. He might not have embraced it, but he always brought some of it back home with him. Above all he brought back the knowledge that there was more than one way to do things. He not only had a daily view of a broad horizon. He also knew that something lay beyond it, and that it wasn’t necessarily the same as here. The farmer saw no further than the fences of his fields, and it was from a small plot of land that he formed his worldview.
That is why the sailor, in the era of globalization, is a better forefather than the farmer, and that is why it is a tragedy that we have chosen to forget him.
The only place where the traditional view of Denmark as a seafaring nation perseveres is within the royal house. The royal family has a royal yacht. We have never heard anything about a royal plow or a royal tractor. When a Danish king must prove he is fit and able to be the head of the kingdom, he doesn’t go out and plow a straight furrow; he stands at the helm of a ship. King Frederik was a maritime king, and Crown Prince Frederik can also handle himself on a ship’s bridge. Prince Joachim, who was unlucky enough to be born too late, and who therefore doesn’t have to be anything special, has logically enough received an education in agriculture.
But had these really been my main considerations I would have written an alternative history book or a polemic essay. But I didn’t. Instead I wrote a novel.
So there must be another explanation, and there is, too.
A novel is a game played with reality. It is also a word game. A novel tells the truth with the help of a lie, some wise author once said. As to the question of where We, the Drowned comes from, my answer is: some fantastical words I once heard, which kept growing inside me until, as the acorn becomes an oak tree, one day they became a novel.
I should describe the circumstances in which I heard the words, because the context is an important part of the story. At the time I was seventeen. My family had moved away from Marstal, and I attended gymnasiet, high school, in Ålborg. My father was still a sailor. He had his own ship, the 220-ton freighter Abelone, built in Holland in 1916 and since lengthened. Abelone was still registered in Marstal, and the times had long since left her behind. In those days, around 1970, the freight market for the small craft trade in Scandinavian waters was almost nonexistent. Most freight was transported by big truck-and-trailers on the newly-built motorways, or loaded onto the freight cars of the state railway, DSB.
In the 1960s, Danes had rising expectations for standards of comfort and welfare. The wages my father could pay, and the conditions the crew onboard the M/S Abelone of Marstal had to live under, belonged to another era. The men were lodged in a forecabin, where four bunks were built into the bulkheads. It was dark and damp. The only light came from a petroleum lamp and a drowsy electric bulb (when the generator was running), the only heat from a petroleum stove. The thin cotton mattresses in the cramped bunk spaces lay directly on wooden slats, and in bad weather seawater ran down into the cabin, you stood in ice-cold water up to the ankles when you left your lurching bunk. If you wanted to wash off you did so, regardless of the season, out on deck. Should you need to answer the call of nature, there was a small metal shed at the ship’s stern. The porcelain toilet bowl in the shed had no mechanism for flushing and draining. There was direct access to the sea underneath. During strong winds—not a rare occurrence at sea—the man in need was obliged to remember, unless he had released something extremely heavy and determined to obey the laws of gravity, to move immediately, for the whole thing would shoot up from the toilet bowl in a great belching geyser.
It was difficult for my father to find a crew. Once in a while old retired skippers, nostalgic for the sea, would sail with him. He fished up some shipwrecked characters in the harbor areas. Their work efforts seldom impressed him. Their often strange and distorted views of life, on the other hand, often scared him. And then he had his seventeen-year-old son. I sailed with him during school vacations.
My father and I had a very complicated relationship. My father was militantly anti-intellectual and of the firm belief that all people who didn’t work with their hands were parasites on society. This included such commonly well-respected professions as schoolteachers and librarians, not that he ever came into contact with the latter. I, however, was of the opinion, which I put into practice, that people were equipped with hands because it would be difficult otherwise to turn the pages of a book. I was enlightened and militantly impractical and therefore totally useless onboard a ship, where I never learned one single thing, either.
I pretended that I was useful, and my father pretended that he appreciated it. It was very involved and exhausting, and if it at all reminds me of any well-known literary example, it would be a story from the only publication my father ever opened, the weekly issue of Donald Duck. Big Bad Wolf is a completely normal wolf who appreciates pigs in the form of roast pork. On the other hand, his son, misleadingly named Lil’ Bad Wolf, is an abnormal wolf. He also likes pigs, but as playmates and friends. My father and I were something like that. Everything I liked he despised, and the life he led didn’t interest me. And yet we were bound to each other in a relationship based on mutual loyalty, which led me to sail with him every time he asked me to.
It was on such an occasion that I heard the words that all of this is leading up to. Bunking down in the dark cabin with me was another man, ancient in my eyes, probably around forty. He had started on my father’s deck many years before as a fourteen-year-old. My father had taught him and recognized his talent for the sea. Therefore he encouraged him to see the world, to sail on a long voyage before returning home and educating himself further in navigation school.
In sailor’s jargon, sailing on a long voyage is also called at sejle på varmen, “sailing on the heat.” In other words, sailing in the tropics, where there is a lot of heat, and where it’s hot you get thirsty. My father’s apprentice got thirsty. He got very thirsty. And by the time he had quenched his thirst many years had passed, and all his dreams of returning home and entering navigation school to become an officer or shipmaster had long since disappeared into the bottle. Now he served before the mast again on my father’s ship, the same place he had started as a boy; he had gotten no further.
It was fall vacation, and we arose at six to make ready to sail. I had heard his return in the early morning hours from a tour of the bars, falling more than crawling down the steep ladder into the crew’s cabin. He couldn’t have slept more than a few hours. His swollen face was red, and he had, as he put it, “pain in his hair.” Suddenly, during the difficult work of covering the hatches, he stopped. A cold rain fell steadily from the low, gray October sky. He turned his face to the rain and sighed heavily.
Then, in a deep, prophetic voice, as if he was reading aloud from the Old Testament, he said the following words: “There shall come a day when all the women of the world shall lie in the gutter and scream for cock, and they shall not be given so much as an inch.” (“There shall come a day when all the women in the world will lie in the gutter screaming for dick,” he intoned. “But not an inch shall they get!”)
Good Lord, I thought, when he had finished his curse. Here is a man with a vision!
I hasten to add that it was a vision I didn’t share. I had neither the years nor the experience to understand the bitterness in those words. But I sensed that here was a man who had gotten one too many nos for an answer.
Later on I discovered that this curse wasn’t his brainchild, the product of an early morning hangover. Sailors have been saying it, if not since time immemorial, at least in many a time and place. A Norwegian reader told me that he heard it spoken in Haugesund in 1977. Another version exists, a more precise or, if you will, narrowly-defined version where the rage is directed toward ship-owners. The ship-owners’ wives do the lying in the gutter, while the sailors passing by, riding white horses to boot, refuse them access to their manhood.
I wasn’t thinking of all this, however, when I heard those words. I was simply thinking that it was a fantastic way of speaking. The next thought that came to me was this: one day I would like to write a book where people talk this way.
Thirty-six years later I had written it. At the top of page 659, a person speaks these very words.
It was a long time coming, but at last I got it down.
After I made the decision in 2000 to begin my book, I traveled to Marstal and visited the Maritime Museum, which is more an eccentric popular movement than a normal museum. I spoke of my plans, still very unclear, and asked if the museum could provide help of some sort or other.
Immediately I was taken down to the archives.
I hadn’t been down there long when I realized that I had stumbled onto a gold mine unbeknownst to the world above.
For centuries Marstallers had sailed all the world’s oceans, witnessing or participating in dramatic historical events. Their town had been bombarded by the British during the Napoleonic Wars early in the nineteenth century. Later that century the town’s seamen were blown to bits in the First Schleswig War. Their schooners were sunk in WWI when Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare, and during WWII almost a hundred of them disappeared into the icy cold North Atlantic, where they had volunteered to sail in the Allied convoys.
There was a treasure of fantastic stories here, life stories and dramatic events. Marstallers had not only journeyed to the most incredible places on earth, they had also been eyewitnesses for the past two centuries to most of the world’s history, in any case the part of it that took place at sea.
I soon picked up on how over the past twenty years the one half of Marstal had been doing little else besides interviewing the other half. It wasn’t because Marstallers are particularly self-centered—or rather, they are that, too—but first and foremost they are proud of, conscious of the exceptional in their own history.
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