“My heart thumps harder. There’s no reason to be afraid. And yet this feels like my baptism of fire. For this trip at least. I get used to these situations within a couple of weeks, but when I’m away from Afghanistan I lose the habit and have to start from scratch. Fear is like a staircase. Climb it in bad shape and it takes a while to find the right rhythm and breathe evenly.’’ – The First Stone
Carsten Jensen is considered one of Denmark’s greatest living authors. He reached international fame with his novel ‘We, the drowned’ (2006) sharing the life of sailors. Earlier this week, the author visited BOZAR in Brussels to read and discuss his last book ‘The First Stone’ (‘Den første sten’) with moderator Gie Goris, editor in chief of MO* Magazine. ‘The First Stone’ has recently been translated into French (Phébus, 2017) and Dutch (De Bezige Bij, 2018). The English translation will be available in the begging of 2019.
But what was his motivation to write this monumental war novel about Afghanistan?
Carsten Jensen has travelled to the country on several occasions over the past forty years.
The inspiration for the novel came out of a conversation with a Danish admiral, who told him that the only people who live a life so dangerous today are professional soldiers at the front line. “That made me think of my interest about the sailor’s life. I was born near the sea, my father was a sailor and I knew this life quite intimately. But I realised then that my real fascination is of people who live on the edge.’’
In his latest novel, he continues to examine the exposed life of Danish professional soldiers who volunteer to travel and fight in Afghanistan. Having in mind that Denmark hasn’t been military active for decades, these soldiers decide to risk their life in search of adventure. Adventure, which brings them unexpected traumas and longing for home. Meeting the soldiers in person, the author quickly realises that they want to prove their heroism in a fight that is so complicated that they aren’t fully aware of the situation in the Middle East. The war gives an illusion of excitement when they observe it from a distance, but it is truly harmful and unbearable.
Jensen finds out that these young volunteers had spent more time playing games than actually preparing for the war. That is why, one of the main characters perceives the war as a computer game. His exploration of the human condition doesn’t stop there. The First Stone includes dramatic depictions of Afghans – the ones who have lost everything, who are in despair, the idealistic ones who fight and those who are searching for shelter.
The war in Afghanistan has been going on for nearly 40 years. The Media doesn’t always speak about the everyday bombs and attacks, as if the topic has become trivial and insignificant. Denmark loses 46 soldiers in the war. But is the novel a journalistic work or a fiction?
’’Both actually. I had to be with the military, you can’t just walk into a war zone. I wanted to be close to my characters, see their actions and hear their thoughts about the war. I realised if I said to the military – I’m a writer, I want to talk about their souls and inner feelings, they would laugh. It is quite demanding to have a civilian crossing a war zone. It’s like having a baby crossing the motorway. I wanted to have more credibility, so I wrote for three Scandinavian newspapers.’’
The novel is about what war does to people, what happens to young people who find themselves in these extreme situations. “Soldiers are basically well-educated killers. The first sentence a young soldier hears when the training starts is “we’re going to teach you how to kill.” They’re not saying, ’We’re going to teach you how to be nice to other people, how to take children to school and how to fight for women’s rights’.
“What does that do to a young man? Why is it attractive? What do you take with you when it’s over, if you ever go back home?” asks Jensen.
Not afraid to take a stand or start a debate, Jensen is the author of several critical essays, features, portrayals and travel descriptions – fiction as well as non-fiction with a satirical twist, all of those based on personal experiences.
“I’m overcome by a weariness born not so much of disgust as of reluctant grief. I think: My country. But it’s not my country. I should be grateful that I belong to another place, and yet Afghanistan has cast a hook in my flesh. It’s a source of savage, unmanageable pain. In a despairing way I belong here. I regret coming. And then I realise: I have no choice. I feel it in my body like a weight, almost a paralysis.’’ – The First Stone