A bestselling Danish novel, by journalist and foreign correspondent Jensen, that chronicles the long-suffering inhabitants of a port city over the course of a century.
Call him Laurids, one of the two kinds of people who populate Jensen’s Homeric catalogue: the drowned and the saved, the latter of whom usually wind up drowned anyway. Laurids Madsden “went up to Heaven and came down again, thanks to his boots,” as Jensen whimsically writes—though, he adds, Laurids never got farther north than the top of his main mast before death spat him back out. Laurids is a veteran of wars and long circumnavigations of the globe, and, now a captain in middle age, childless and unmarried, he faces the difficult task of figuring out how to move about on the dry land of his home. Says one of his neighbors, “You call Marstal a sailors' town, but do you know what I call it? I call it a town of wives. It’s the women who live here. The men are just visiting.” Those women, Jensen’s omniscient narrator tells us, “live in a state of permanent uncertainty,” for those men are in the habit of disappearing for two or three years at a time and battling very long odds of survival, to say nothing of heavily armed Germans. Hope is either a greening plant or an open wound, the narrator adds, and so the people of Marstal go about their business not quite knowing who among them is living or dead. Jensen (I Have Seen the World Begin: Travels Through China, Cambodia, and Vietnam, 2002, etc.) peoples his long, expertly told saga with figures from Danish history as well as of his own invention, from Crown Prince Frederik to a ship’s captain who “remained equally pale in summer and winter, in northern hemisphere and southern,” and all with the usual frailties and foibles. Jensen is a sympathetic storyteller with an eye for the absurd, with the result that if this novel descends from Moby-Dick, it also looks to The Tin Drum for inspiration.
“Is there anything more heartbreaking than drowning in sight of land?” asks our narrator—and we know the answer. An elegant meditation on life, death and the ways of the sea.