I Have Seen the World Begin

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When Carsten Jensen set out by train from Denmark on a journey to the East, he expected to find lands of rich history and culture, and people undergoing radical change at the end of the twentieth century. In this illuminating narrative of his travels, there is this and much, much more.
Fusing social commentary and history with vibrant descriptions of people and places, Jensen brilliantly evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of these venerable civilizations. He examines the ...

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Overview

When Carsten Jensen set out by train from Denmark on a journey to the East, he expected to find lands of rich history and culture, and people undergoing radical change at the end of the twentieth century. In this illuminating narrative of his travels, there is this and much, much more.
Fusing social commentary and history with vibrant descriptions of people and places, Jensen brilliantly evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of these venerable civilizations. He examines the reverberations of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, always attuned to the restless air of expectancy in the country, but also finds time for remote concerts of ancient Chinese music. He renders the pervasive sense of destruction, despair, and loss in Cambodia with particular sensitivity, wondering at the specter of death that still hovers over the landscape. And it is in Vietnam, with its palpable legacy of colonialism and war, that Jensen ultimately loses himself in an extraordinary love affair.
At once compelling and richly informative, I Have Seen the World Begin is an incredible journey.

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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
You won't always find this an easy read: The weight of human wickedness hangs heavily from the pages of I Have Seen the World Begin. What you will find, though, is a work of astonishing insight and personal impact, melding historical perspective and sociological exegesis with a vivid travelogue that compels reflection long after you have closed its cover. Carsten Jensen, the Danish essayist and journalist, traveled extensively and with deliberation within China, Cambodia, and Vietnam, actively seeking out and sometimes stumbling upon those places -- natural and constructed -- most freighted with meaning for both Asians and Westerners.

Jensen's purpose goes beyond mere sightseeing though: Everywhere, he pursues deeper connections with the people he meets -- monks, UN personnel, children, restaurant owners -- and inexorably that quest results in love affairs, one carnal and the other platonic, with Vietnamese women. The relationships he cultivates also serve as life-affirming antidotes to the pervasive and lingering evil he finds in the political, economic, and social institutions of the regions he moves through. His languorous (but hardly luxurious) commute by riverboat on the Yangtse occasions both shared delight with his fellow Chinese travelers in the transient beauty of the soon-to-be-dammed Three Gorges and his witnessing a brutal public scene of domestic violence that morphs into a bloody street brawl in Wuhan: "I was being presented with another, darker China in which a restless multitude sought scapegoats who would have to pay the price for outrages so fundamental that they may even have been nameless, springing as they did from the fight for survival itself." Jensen's expatiation on the nature of the singular evil he finds in Cambodia amidst the still deadly Khmer Rouge bullets is some of the most incisive and important writing on the subject you will ever find; it will move you to tears -- and to a deeper understanding of our world. (Janet Dudley)

Publishers Weekly
That Danish journalist and essayist Jensen witnessed something momentous and formative on his journey through southeast Asia is clear, but the declarative force of his title belies the gradual, continuous nature of his discovery. Where and when did the beginning of the world make itself visible to this lonely traveler? On Nanjing Dong Lu, where brash consumerism explodes in pyrotechnics on the eve of the New Year, prompting Jensen to exclaim, "China is shedding its skin"? Or was it in Udang, the former capital of a kingdom now known as Cambodia, where amid the rubble of a wasted monastery he finds a grove of trees, carefully tended and labeled with Latin species names? Or in Vietnam, where erotic women have forgiven their past sorrows and whose "process of forgetting... was the sandpaper with which they refined an outlook on life"? In all these places and others, Jensen describes a near mystical experience in language so luminous one wonders whether to praise the author or the translator. Often, the headiness of his reactions threatens to discredit him he confesses that for him Asia represents a "dream." A very Western political view also compromises his analogies he views modern China almost exclusively through the lens of Tiananmen Square; Cambodians are uniformly asked about life before 1979, during the period of Pol Pot's nightmarish "geno-suicide"; and he thinks of Vietnam and war as inseparable, "as though that were the country's name." Still, Jensen's solemnity and spirituality distinguish him from most Western observers, as does his easy turn of anecdote into metaphor. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This view of Asia by a Danish writer provides a different perspective not only on the cultures and histories of China, Cambodia, and Vietnam but also on the role of U.S. foreign policy and politics in these regions. Jensen is a columnist and literary critic for a Copenhagen daily and won Denmark's Golden Laurels Award (best book of the year) for this work. In recounting his journeys through this trio of troubled nations, he combines personal observations, interactions, historical perspectives, political analysis, and self-examination. Jensen finds both charm and calamity in China. Cambodia is a distressing experience, while Vietnam provides him with a surprising liberation from the bonds of his own personality. Jensen writes thoughtfully, even philosophically, as he probes for the motivations behind the actions of the societies he encounters. For instance, he speculates at length on the essence of evil as manifested by the Khmer Rouge. The United States is taken to task for its actions in Southeast Asia on several occasions, and readers should be prepared (in light of our recent patriotic fervor) for some negative remarks. However, traveling in the company of this articulate Dane results in a unique and enjoyable armchair journey. Recommended for all libraries. Janet Ross, formerly with Sparks Branch Lib., NV Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Jensen, a journalist and author of six collections of essays and two novels, combines social commentary and history with descriptions of the people, sights, and sounds of China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The book was first published in Danish by Munksgaard/Rosinante as , and was first published in English by The Harvill Press. No index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A thoughtful, if at times ponderous, passage through blood-soaked terrain. Danish journalist and novelist Jensen has a sense of humor befitting a countryman of Kierkegaard; he scarcely cracks a smile as he moves among the paradoxical cities and cultures of Southeast Asia, save when a "famous professor of medicine who had once operated on a government minister let rip a resounding fart." Grimly noting the overcrowded streets of Shanghai, the impoverished villagers of Lijiang, the orphans of Phnom Penh, he philosophizes and strikes dark moods (". . . this metaphysical weariness that seemed to strike at the very will to live"). His penchant for melancholia, coupled with the fact that his travels rarely take him beyond the officially approved tourist circuit, would all make for very tiresome reading were Jensen not so blessedly smart; wherever he goes, he is able to join a deep well of bookish knowledge to a penetrating eye for telling details. He observes, for example, that the ferocity and viciousness of the Khmer Rouge's destruction of Cambodia sprang from the unformed morality of the revolution's young perpetrators, many not yet teenagers; he marvels at the existence of apparently insurmountable boundaries of class in a supposedly classless China; he weeps on reading the words of an American soldier begging forgiveness of the Vietnamese people decades after fighting there. Throughout, he revels in the uncomfortable tradition of the European existentialist intellectual: "As a traveler, you are a nobody in the eyes of others. And in your own eyes: the accused. . . . Perhaps I was making this journey to store up future memories; in order, later, to yearn for the peacefulness of thoseforeign landscapes which I was far too anxious and breathless to take in while I was actually looking at them, and which only became real once they receded into the distance." Well-written-though elusive-literary travel through interior country: Jensen's US debut is a cut above the usual slide-show travelogue.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781860465840
  • Publisher: Random House of Canada, Limited
  • Publication date: 10/26/2000
  • Edition description: ABR
  • Pages: 337

Meet the Author

As a boy in Marstal, Denmark, CARSTEN JENSEN sailed on his father’s boat, a 220-ton freighter named the Abelone . In 2000, he returned to Marstal to write We, the Drowned . He has also worked as a literary critic and a journalist, reporting from China, Cambodia, Latin America, the Pacific Islands, and Afghanistan.

We, the Drowned won Denmark’s most important literary prize, while also being selected by readers of a major daily newspaper as the best Danish novel of the last twenty-five years. It was a bestseller throughout Scandinavia and in Germany, and has also been published in the United Kingdom, Spain, and France.

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