The Graveyard of Empires: An Interview with Carsten Jensen

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George Salis: Although your novel The First Stone follows the lives of Danish soldiers within the Afghanistan War, the war itself was inherently American. Do you think writing from a ‘foreign’ perspective gave you a clearer vision? Or is it the case that biases of one kind or another are always present amid historical events of such magnitude? On a related note, do you think some American readers were uncomfortable having ‘their’ history judged by someone else?

Carsten Jensen: Since I didn’t go on a reading tour in the States, I never got to meet any American readers, so I have no idea how they interpreted my novel. The review in the New York Times was done by a British critic, who seemed to mistake me for Rudyard Kipling! But the point is, it wasn’t just an American war, but a NATO war: at the height of the “surge” there were 40,000 non-American NATO soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. I wanted a Danish angle—not least because Denmark has not been involved in a single war since its monumental defeat to Prussia in 1864. I was interested in seeing how the soldiers of a nation which had been absent from the battlefield for six generations reacted to being there.

GS: This is a guest question from Sean Spillane: “The First Stone reckons with the Afghanistan War, which at the time was dubbed the ‘Forever War.’ Since your novel was published in Danish in 2015, not only were The Afghanistan Papers released, but Western militaries have pulled out of Afghanistan. Now that the war is ‘over,’ at least from the perspective of the West, what do you think the legacy of this war is? What has the West learned from this failed invasion of Afghanistan, the so-called ‘graveyard of empires’?”

CJ: I can say with great confidence that we have learnt nothing. Danish politicians claimed until the very day before the fall of Kabul that the war was a great success, that we had made no errors and that we had no cause for self-reproach. But let’s face it: this is the end of an era. A bunch of guys in turbans outwitted and outfought the strongest and most well-equipped military the world has ever known. The US might in the future harass small nations in the immediate neighbourhood—though I think that even Cuba might be too big a challenge. But as a global military player it’s over for the West. When it comes to the future of Afghanistan, the West will have no influence. The big players in the region will be China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran.

GS: How would you compare and contrast Danish politics with American politics?

CJ: The United States is obsessed with power, and Denmark is obsessed with being the good guy. But in Afghanistan it came down to the same thing: we were fighting in a country we were blatantly ignorant about. Knowing your enemy is always the strongest weapon. But we never knew anything about the Taliban, nor Afghanistan for that matter.

GS: The pronoun “we” isn’t very common in American literature in terms of narration, and I suspect it’s not as common in Danish literature either. One of the most notable American novels to employ the “we” with a significant narrative potency is Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men. Can you reflect on this pronoun as it relates to literature as a whole and why you decided to use it in your novel, We, The Drowned?

CJ: There is no narrative “we” in The First Stone. It is quite traditional storytelling until two-thirds into the novel when a narrative “I” takes over. There is a very distinct “we” in my historical novel We, the Drowned. I was inspired by the handful of teenage boys who narrate Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides. Eugenides evokes a suburban setting with a small cast, while my own novel takes place in the seafaring community of Marstal: its hundreds of citizens communally tell the story across four generations, spanning almost 100 years. The “we” is a bit like the Chorus in Greek tragedy, always on the stage commenting on the action while the individual characters step forward and tell their story. I thought hard about this “we.” Could it be everybody in the town? No: the lives of women and men are dramatically different in any seafaring community, so it could only be the voice of the men. But in the last part of the novel the women step forward, rebelling against the lifestyle imposed upon them in a seafaring community.

GS: Gabriel García Márquez didn’t take to the term “magical realism” because to him and his people, the magic was as real as anything else in their world. To be more specific, he said, “Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” Is this how you view the magic in We, the Drowned? Does surrealism come from the reality of Nordic countries?

CJ: The magic realism of Latin America was very inspired by the Icelandic Sagas—which nobody would label surrealistic. There are dark powers such as curses influencing human life in the Icelandic Sagas, but that’s very different from surrealism. One of the characters in We, the Drowned has prophetic dreams in which he sees his fellow sailors dying in a war to come, but I was not inspired by Latin American magic realism when I wrote it, even though the Colombian critics claimed that I was.

GS: What exceptional adventures have you been on since writing I Have Seen the World Begin?

CJ: That travel memoir—published in 2001 in the UK and the US, was the first of two volumes. The second, I Have Heard A Shooting Star, which is published only in Scandinavia, is about crossing the Pacific and travelling through Latin America, with Peru as my special focus. Papua New Guinea is one of the most amazing places I have ever been to, a world shrouded in its own mystery, with hardly any infrastructure at all. The locals are all great storytellers, steeped in one of the richest mythmaking and storytelling cultures of the world. I hiked in the jungle of New Ireland, one of the Papuan Islands. One night as I sat around a fire with some local men, we heard an extraordinary sound coming from the sky, like a giant blowtorch. We looked up and saw a burning object—a tiny meteor, or a shooting star—flash across the treetops. An instant later we heard the sound of its impact, with massive jungle trees crashing down. It was such a magical moment that it became the title of the book. Since the new millennium, I have travelled a lot in Afghanistan as a reporter, and to research my novel about the war. I am no military expert but already, ten years ago, I could see that we were headed for defeat. The Afghan landscapes are majestic—like the people. I have been to Burma, too, writing about the Karen people and their fight against the military junta. These were quite optimistic times, so it has been so sad to see Aung San Suu Kyi betray democracy and a brutal military once again install a ruthless dictatorship.

GS: What is a country you haven’t visited but is on your bucket list?

CJ: Right now I am not itching to go anywhere. Once we talked about the white spots on the map, countries that had never been explored, but now the globe is getting covered by black spots, countries too dangerous to go to. I’d like to have visited Mali but it’s becoming one of them. My three favourite countries after decades of travelling are Norway, Italy, and Vietnam, but this has everything to with the people rather than with adventure or danger.

GS: What would you nominate as The Great Danish Novel that has yet to be translated into English? Is there something that is classic and innovative out there that could be compared with Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance?

CJ: Danish literature never produced a Ulysses. But there are two great Danish novels in the English translation that I really recommend. One is Henrik Pontoppidan’s 19th-century masterpiece A Fortunate Man, which was translated only recently: Frederic Jameson wrote a wonderful essay about it in the London Review of Books. And then there is Johannes V. Jensen’s novel The Fall of the King, though the translation that exists doesn’t really do it justice, and the reason is probably his very complicated use of the Danish language. It takes place in the 16th century but it reflects the defeatism that haunted Denmark after the fatal war with Prussia back in 1864 where we lost 40 percent of our territory. To Jensen, the Danes are fatalistic dreamers, incapable of action—a self-image that has haunted us ever since, which partly explains why we so eagerly threw ourselves into war in the first decade of the millennium. We want to prove to ourselves that we, too, are a nation that can rise to the challenges of the war. And sadly, all the wars we engage in end up as fiascos.

GS: Is there an explicit purpose to your novels beyond art? Are you attempting to instruct people morally? Are you trying to change someone’s way of thinking? And if so, how is this medium more successful for those purposes than plain old nonfiction?

CJ: If I wanted to instruct people morally I would never use the novel as a medium. Novels are much more complex than that. Basically, a novel is about asking questions, not answering them. They are invitations to empathy, trying to be someone, who is not you, beyond the comforts of simple recognition, realizing that when you look into the mirror of the novel you will see somebody you didn’t know you were. I used to say that the novelist is at the same time a garbage collector, a gardener, and an astronomist, getting rid of the clichés of old, outdated language and ideas about life, cultivating new ones more appropriate to our times and using the telescope of language to look deep into the mysteries of life.

I write in several genres, the essay among them, and also as a public intellectual contributing to public debate. They are very different approaches to language and your reader, and you must not mistake the genres. Yes, as a public intellectual you have a message, a moral one, too, sometimes, but as a novelist you are not pedagogical, you must never attempt to simplify your message in the name of the good cause.

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Photo by Thomas Lekfeldt

Born 1952, Carsten Jensen is widely considered one of Denmark’s finest and most outspoken participants in the public sphere. In 2009, Jensen was awarded the prestigious Olof Palme Prize for his “work, in word and deed, to defend the weak and vulnerable as well in his own country as around the world.” An avid traveler, Carsten Jensen has produced several critically-acclaimed travel biographies, the most famous of which are probably Jeg har set verden begynde (I Have Seen the World Begin) from 1996 and Jeg har hørt et stjerneskud (I Have Heard a Shooting Star) from the following year. He was awarded the Golden Laurels in 1997 for the former, the most coveted literary prize in Denmark, but had received critical acclaim previous to the award for his essays and articles, such as Sjælen sidder i øjet (1985) (The Soul Is in the Eye) and Jorden i munden (1991) (Earth in the Mouth). His many travels have taken him to both the Balkans and Afghanistan where he has reported on the atrocities committed there and the political motivation behind the Danish presence in these war zones. As a writer of literary fiction, Carsten Jensen is equally successful. His bestselling novel Vi, de druknede (We, the Drowned) has sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide and has been translated into 25 languages, the latest being Chinese, Iranian, and Bengali.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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