Friday October 29th, 2010

The Wheel of Fortune

The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
Open Letter, 298 pp., $15.95

After a recent reading in a small, internationally stocked New York bookstore, Icelandic author Bragi Ólafsson prepared to answer questions from the audience about his newly translated novel, The Ambassador. But rather than asking about the novel, or a previous novel (The Pets, published in the U.S. in 2008), or his prose style and writing inspiration, or even his former gig as the bassist in The Sugarcubes (a band fronted by Björk), the audience put him in the awkward position of providing a complex overview of the entire nation of Iceland — its history, relationship with Europe, and the collective feelings and opinions of its 320,000 inhabitants. Some of these questions veered toward the literary: one participant asked for a summary of the state of all Icelandic fiction, as well as an update on the popularity of crime fiction within mainland Scandinavian countries such as Sweden. Another was curious as to how the current economic crisis was affecting Icelandic poets — “Are they isolated? Are they upset?” This took the conversation to a more purely financial place, with other guests asking Bragi (Icelanders don’t go by their last names, which are patronymic, even in formal contexts) to summarize the events that led to the downfall of the Icelandic banking system, and what, if anything, could be done to resolve the situation.

Bragi answered each inquiry with remarkable civility, but it seems comically appropriate that a reading for The Ambassador would both force the author to become an impromptu emissary for his country and so quickly devolve into absurdity. Bragi is a master of the straight-faced farce, the simple situation that becomes suddenly and astonishingly convoluted. This was showcased to great effect in The Pets, in which the main character, Emil Halldorsson, spends the entirety of the novel hiding under his bed while an unwanted guest breaks into his home, drinks his imported liquor, and invites his friends over for a party.

As a rule, Bragi’s characters do not attend to social mores or banal niceties. They actively defy them, forcing anyone they come into contact with (including the reader) to negotiate an entirely unfamiliar brand of social interaction — one bereft of expected politeness, full of bumbling awkwardness and a host of errant choices that compound as the novel progresses. It’s part of what makes his work so engaging. As he explained prior to his reading, “It’s not very interesting to describe nice people.”

The Ambassador opens during a shopping trip to an upscale men’s clothing store in Reykjavik. Sturla Jón Jónsson, a fiftyish building super and published poet, is purchasing an expensive “English-style Aquascutum overcoat” that he’s coveted for quite some time. He’s bought the coat just in time for an upcoming trip to a poetry festival in Lithuania. As his departure nears, Sturla Jón has had a spate of good fortune: not only has he been selected the sole representative from Iceland at the festival, he’s also just published a new volume of poetry and won almost 10,000 kronur in the university-run gambling hall.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Vilnius, however, he finds out he has been publicly outed in Iceland for plagiarizing unpublished poems by his deceased cousin. Shortly after, his prized overcoat is stolen in a restaurant. Both events precipitate increasingly outlandish behavior on Sturla Jón’s part. To replace his lost garment, he steals an expensive overcoat from a different restaurant, only to find out that the man he robbed is a prominent American benefactor of the poetry festival. When one of the organizers accuses him of the theft, Sturla Jón abandons the event altogether, opting to hide out under an assumed name in a Vilnius boarding house.

Much bubbles under the surface of this seemingly simple, comic story of petty theft and a literary festival gone awry. The Ambassador is awash with Sturla Jón’s drifting and tangential memories, each adding an additional layer of nuanced development to his character and his complicated relationships. We’re introduced to his father, an aspiring filmmaker and librarian who is only 15 years older than his son. Sturla Jón’s mother, an unstable alcoholic, has recently taken up posing topless for local artists. His talented young cousin, Jónas, killed himself only days after promising to give Sturla Jón the manuscript for his first book of poems. There’s even a crossover character from The Pets, a teacher named Armann Valur. The rich back story and well-realized secondary characters add a fullness to the narrative, and a sense of Sturla Jón’s deeply interconnected community at home.

Perhaps the most productive recurrent theme in The Ambassador is creation, the question of to whom a creative idea, artistic product, or particularly powerful turn of phrase belongs — if it belongs to anyone at all. As it turns out, Sturla Jón is entirely surrounded by other authors and artists, not only his fellow poets at the festival. Before he’s left Iceland, several strangers and acquaintances — the man who sells him his overcoat, a neighbor in his apartment building — reveal that they, too, are artists of some stripe. Arriving in Lithuania, Sturla Jón shares a table with a Russian man at a strip club who is writing a novel, and a cab with a woman who is also a poet. His coat is later stolen (he believes) by a street musician playing Rod Stewart covers. “[P]eople everywhere around him seemed to have a need to tell him about their own desire to create,” Bragi writes. And for his part, Sturla Jón absorbs all of this creative output, internalizes it, and makes it his own.

Bragi complicates the ethical questions of authorship and plagiarism. Sturla Jón is an avid reader, for whom inspirational quotations, powerful metaphors, and particularly vivid images create a backdrop to all of life. He is constantly recalling lines of poetry, song lyrics, or descriptions that seem so apt, so perfect in describing his own experience that he feels as if he could have written them. Here, he is waiting at a bus station in Lithuania:

He remembers a quotation he noted down in his black notebook shortly before leaving Iceland, a quotation he’d come across by chance . . . in a book which contained the musings of poets on their duty to explain the meaning of their poems. And when he opens his notebook as he sits there on the hard wooden bench outside the bus station . . . he feels as if these words by the English poet Donald Davie, published in 1959, are his own . . . [Y]ou could easily convince yourself that it was pure coincidence that they’d been printed in a book in England before Sturla’s handwriting had fixed the lines in a black notebook.

Haven’t most authors — and most readers — had a similar experience when first coming across a resonant line or passage? The Ambassador isn’t interested in wrapping up any debates about plagiarism — or any of Sturla Jón’s offbeat misadventures. It relishes the journey, and offers plenty of unexpected insights and ironic humor along the way.

Larissa Kyzer works at New York University and is a second-year master’s student in the Palmer School of Library and Information Science. She is a contributing book reviewer for The L Magazine, Three Percent, and Reviewing the Evidence, and is looking forward to taking her first trip to Iceland in the coming year.

Mentioned in this review:

The Ambassador
The Pets