The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson

The Ambassador from Icelandic author Bragi Olafsson follows on the heels of The Pets. The Pets is an incredibly funny story of a man whose home is invaded by a loony from his past, and the sort of humour prevalent in The Pets is also present in The Ambassador, so it’s no stretch to say that if you like one novel, you will like the other. The protagonist of The Pets is a thirty-something divorced male–whereas the protagonist of The Ambassador is Sturla Jon, a 50-something divorced father of 5.

When the novel begins, Sturla, a poet, has just seen the publication of his latest book of poems, and he’s in a shop buying a rather expensive overcoat. It’s an item he’s coveted for a long time, and now that he’s about to leave for a poetry festival in Lithuania, he’s decided to splurge and buy the coat for his trip. The unlined “Italian-made, English-style” overcoat is a somewhat impractical choice, but Sturla, who had to reorder the coat when they all sold out, is treating himself.

Sturla, who earns a living as a super in his apartment building, has resolved to stop writing poetry; he’s thinking of perhaps turning to fiction instead, and in an art-imitates-life-way of settling old grievances, he has an idea for a short story:

It was, he thought, basically about everything he’d done in his life in the past fifteen minutes: a middle-aged poet goes into a bookstore to see, for the first time, his newly-published book sitting with all the other newly-published books, tightly-wrapped  in glistening cellophane, on display with its price tag facing the literary minded folk and other customers of the bookstore. This book has become a commodity to be bought and sold, the value it acquires becomes destined to be measured not against a price tag stuck on a copy, but against each individual reader’s opinion as to whether it was a worthy item or not.

In Sturla’s opinion, there is an irony to this that results from a deception the poet himself perpetrates; when it comes down to it, his value is only ever evident from the price tag on the book, and every year will bring a new sticker and a lower price until, in the end, when the last copies of the book finally sell at the Icelandic Discount Book Fair, twenty or thirty years later, the price on the sticker will have dropped under 100 kronur, down as low as double-digits. Because of this, and in order to make the distance between the author and his subject matter clear–or else the reader might somehow start imagining he was describing his own experience–Sturla had come up with an idiosyncratic character, a poet, who gets very angry in the bookstore because his newly-published book isn’t on display at the front of the store with the other brand new books.  

The novel’s humour comes from the mild insanity of the slightly off-kilter events. It begins in the shop when the assistant tells Sturla that there’s a discount “with plastic” not with cash (which makes no sense whatsoever), and it continues from there. We see Sturla interacting with his divorced parents–father Jon Magnusson, a librarian/frustrated film maker who’s full of sage advice for his son: “Perhaps you shouldn’t get too close with womenfolk in general; it’s not worth taking the risk of ending up with a sixth little bastard,” and Fanny, Sturla’s alcoholic mother who is developing “new methods” to get booze, can’t stop showing off a topless photograph she had taken decades earlier to anyone who stops by.

Then there’s Sturla’s ex-wife and his 5 children. In adulthood the children have all gone their own ways, and Sturla really doesn’t understand or relate to any of them. One of his sons, in particular, seems to grown increasingly like his stepfather and another is addicted to exercise. And then everyone Sturla meets is an artist of some sort even as they work a variety of day jobs. Sturla finds this incredibly annoying, but there’s a subtlety here as while Sturla tells everyone he’s a poet, he makes his living as a building supervisor–a fact he fails to mention to most people. From the novel’s beginning something doesn’t seem quite right about Sturla and his poetry, and just what the problem is is revealed as the plot develops and Sturla’s ruminations of discontent continue.

Naturally since Sturla is dogged by such strange family relationships, you’d expect that he might find himself surrounded by like-minded people at the Lithuanian poetry festival, but once in Lithuania, things go downhill. He’s stuck in a shitty hotel, spends an evening at the Old Town Erotic Centre, turns to theft and has an encounter with a local prostitute. But in spite of all this, there’s even worse to come….

 This is very low-key, off-kilter humour. If you’ve ever had one of those days when every encounter you have has some sort of bizarre streak to it, and you find yourself wondering if it’s a full moon, then you know what I mean. The book’s title, by the way, could refer to three things:

Sturla’s grandfather was an ambassador

Sturla is an unofficial ambassador for Iceland at a poetry festival held in Lithuania

The name of Sturla’s shitty hotel is The Ambassador.

This should give a hint about the sorts of connections that run through the novel.

And here’s another quote just to give another taste of the book. Here’s Sturla wailing about the navel-gazing egos of poets and the poetry contest to be held during the conference:

And then, as a way of concluding this tragicomic presentation, all kinds of reading groups take over the program. We poor devils will be arranged into groups according to some rigid system one of the festival committee members  has been devoting months to, and I’m assuming that these groups will perform an autopsy on one of the poems.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up choosing a messy effort by one of the American house-wife poets, or by the Meierhof Phenomenon, it certainly won’t be a poem by that drunkard Bush or by me, who is from the back of beyond.

And finally, when we’ve all been over-stuffed with the art of words, the organizers will reveal to us who is the idiotic winner of the poetry contest they announced on the first day of the festival.

After this second title by Bragi Olafsson, I am now sold on trying more Icelandic fiction. I’ll have a go at Icelandic crime fiction and I also have 101 Rejkavick to read. Armann Valur, btw, who appeared in The Pets, also has a cameo appearance in The Ambassador.

Review copy from Open Letter Books read on my kindle.

Translated by Lytton Smith

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12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Olafsson Bragi

12 responses to “The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson

  1. This sounds like another very good novel. I read Indridason who is really not bad at all and, of course, Laxness but he is quite challenging, the humour is there as well though. I got 101 Reykjavik as well and the Pets after your last review. Their writing is very different from any other country I think.

    • Max (Pechorin’s Journal) didn’t seem thrilled by Jar City, but that’s where I’m going to start. Have you read many Indridson?

      • No, just one but for anything Icelandic, including crime, I highly recommend the Blog Flippism is the Key (on my blogroll). “Prof Batty” is really dedicated, he also has a Laxness page. And his blog writing style is engaging. Indridason is very different from other cime books and not what one would expect, I did review it last year. Very grim and bleak.

  2. Amy

    Great review…it was one of my top four titles for last year. I love the humor and Sturla’s attitude-he is so jaded and yet still surprised by the insanity.

    And the beer and coffee issues in his hotel room? Priceless…

  3. leroyhunter

    I read about this before, but I can’t remember where. I liked the sound of it then and still do. I wanted to see the flick Jar City when it was out but missed it – you’re right, Max didn’t think too much of the book.

    John Self has just reviewed one by Sjon, whom I’d never heard of at all. Lots to explore in Icelandic fiction it seems. Is Lytton Smith cornering the market in translations I wonder? You wouldn’t expect there to be droves of anglophone Icelandic-speakers capable of producing good versions.

    • I looked up info on the translator (he has a translator’s note in the book in which he thanks the publisher). He’s a poet and lit & writing teacher at Columbia and Fordham Unis. Born in Britain (I’d wondered about that with the first name).

  4. I think one of my favorite traits in literature is when an author lets of one of his/her previous characters show up randomly (or not so randomly…) in a different book. It’s always a bit of fun recognizing them and it doesn’t hurt readers who haven’t read the previous book.

    • Exactly. I read the name of the character and said …wait a minute. This books finds Armann Valur younger and therefore at a different stage in his career. Have you by chance read FAME by Daniel Kehlmann? It’s a series of short stories in which some of the same characters keep popping up.

  5. This one hasn’t been translated into French but I’ll read The Pets when it’s available in paperback. It sounds huge fun.

  6. I think you would really enjoy The Pets. I hope more of this author’s work is translated into English.

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