Literature: “Zur See” by Dörte Hansen: a novel about life on a small island in the North Sea

Using the example of a family, Dörte Hansen tells the difficult relationship between islanders and tourists – and the unimaginable love for the sea.

A young sperm whale is stranded on an island in the North Sea. It is a winter morning, an old sailor discovers him, a few more breaths and the young whale dies. What now? No one knows anymore, because such a knowledge, such a feeling for the whale, is not just inherited from the ancestors like the whale bone fence in front of the house. So they stand there, confused, all descendants of the once daring whalers, find at least one to stab the dead whale to relieve the pressure, and then wait for the mainland experts.

Young whales swimming in the wrong direction, young islanders who do not move, remain on the small piece of land “that lies half submerged in the North Sea”. What does man do there, asks Dörte Hansen in his third novel “Zur See”. Why don’t people run away? Just sell the thatched house, expensive to one of the so interested wealthy islanders with their longing for the sea, have taken care of it and then left. The second question would then be: where exactly?

Dörte Hansen’s book “Zur See” is about a West Sea island (here Borkum).

Photo: Sina Schuldt, dpa (symbol image)

In the book “Zur See”, Dörte Hansen tells about life on a small island

It is a dilemma that Dörte Hansen describes, and she dissects it in the way that the whale eventually comes apart, peeling off layer by layer. There is the island where the residents no longer freeze, the men no longer sail for months, the women no longer have to wait, and where the fishermen no longer fish, but only the tourists, for example on sunset cruises over the sea, sail. The old life is only an exhibition that guests admire at the museum or on an island tour. But there is still a little of the old life in the new life, inherited island rage, inherited island fear, inherited island love. But is it still your island?

She tells all this using the example of the Sander family, old island nobility, home on the nameless island “somewhere in Jutland, Friesland or Zeeland” for 300 years, the most beautiful house, often photographed and painted by tourists. But behind the bone fence under the thatched roof, the captain got lost, lives alone as a bird keeper, his wife continues to work busy so as not to sink into gloomy thoughts.

The eldest son, a drinker, has worked his way down, once a captain on the high seas, now he loosens and tightens the lines on the island ferry. The daughter Eske works at the retirement home, takes care of all the old islanders who still knew the other life, tapes their conversations to at least save the old island language, and races along the streets of the island with a loud booming bass , marking her territory.

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Only the youngest, Henrik, swims freely in everyday life on the island, collects driftwood and creates works of art from it, which are then admired and bought in the gallery by the other tribe of islanders, the other home dwellers. And then there is the island priest who loses faith, his wife not completely, but she wants to go to the mainland and will not come until the weekend.

Dörte Hansen writes passages that knock you down like high waves

And because some things can’t really be explained, not the crazy longing, not the crazy island homegirl who catches up with the island’s daughter Eske, after reading it, it’s mainly images that stay in the head instead of answers. And what kind of images are these, of people sawing away at the skeleton in mountains of whale flesh and blood, and what sentences Dörte Hansen puts in his novel as bone splinters from the whale and other fine and bright, polished around as they were from the sea and sand pieces of amber.

There is no love between birds and humans, she quotes the so-called seagull man, “who was found dead in the sand after his heartbeat, his eye sockets pecked clean.” Dörte Hansen, who became a bestselling author with “Altes Land” and followed it up with the fantastic novel “Mittagsstunden”, writes passages that hit you like high waves, sometimes – in the third novel – they pile up, heavy with meaning , like Kawenz men – dangerously close to kitsch. But then she lets the pathos subside again – when she writes about the disappearance of a world, she does not let it perish completely.

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