Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"the speaker of the poem is made from materials that are not meant to last, and won't survive, a lifetime."

The Ambassador
By Bragi Ólafsson
Translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith
298 pages
Open Letter Press
October 12, 2010

And after half an hour has passed, when he's finished the book and set it down on the nightstand, he promises himself that this is the last thriller he will read; from now on, he will write them. He wants to show the reader of this very book, a book he's already beginning to forget, that thrillers don't need a robbery or murder to hold your attention.They just need to creat some uncertainty about whether or not the protagonist will make his Big Decision.

Bragi Ólafsson is best known internationally as the bassist of the Sugarcubes, the Icelandic alternative rock band fronted by Björk from 1986 to 1992. Around the time of its formation, however, Ólafsson had already launched his writing career with the publication of Dragsúgur (Draught), a volume of poetry. Since then, he has found success in his native land as a playwright and novelist and was twice nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize. The Ambassador is his second novel to be released in English by Open Letter Press, following The Pets in 2008.

Sturla Jón Jónsson is the superintendent for an apartment building in Reykjavík. He is also an accomplished poet whose recent book assertions has enjoyed critical success. Beyond that, he is an ordinary fiftyish divorcee with five children, an unstable alcoholic mother, and sardonic father with unfulfilled dreams of filmmaking. Sturla is very pleased, however, with the fine new coat he has purchased with the money from assertions. Its cost is the equivalent to the average Icelander's three-month salary, has seams guaranteed to last a lifetime, and is laminated like a book jacket. Sturla loves his new coat. He has also been invited to a poetry festival in Druskininkai, Lithuania, which fails to excite him. But he goes anyway, has a several minor misadventures, and is informed of a plagiarism charge lodged against him by a friend of his late cousin Jónas, who killed himself three decades ago at age twenty.

It is hard to explain how exactly this ends up being 298 pages of material. The Ambassador has no real plot and nothing more exciting than a Lithuanian strip club ever happens. Sturla leads a thoroughly dull life despite his acclaim as a poet, which begs the question of why someone would bother writing an entire novel about him.

In fact, that's sort of the point. The Ambassador is a satire of artistic pretensions. Sturla is initially disdainful of his craft and has declared to himself that assertions is the end of his poetry career. Back home in Iceland, he authors a scornful review of the festival before it has even begun - "a report from the future" that ends with the image of a "crazy rich rapper from Los Angeles" enlivening Druskininkai with his on-the-spot compositions about South Central. But rap, of course, is another form of poetry. The "gangsta" with gold chains becomes a reflection of Sturla's relationship to his art and perception of his fellow artists. It can be said that the whole world is poetry, and what we think of as a poem is merely the "emptiness and surface emotions that still life offers: more or less beautiful textures, at best, things better suited to being the subject of a watercolor on the wall of a room." This enterprise we call art is merely artifice, and any so-called "poetry festival" is a puffed-up farce patronized by self-aggrandizers lacking self-awareness.

That's how Sturla feels in the beginning, anyway. Why in the world does Cambridge Biographical Center want to include him in its "2,000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century"? Still, for some reason people want to create, and seem to feel a camaraderie with their fellow creators: the coat salesman turns out to be an artist, a resident of his building is author of a short story, the Lithuanian taxi driver is also a poet, and a fat Russian businessman at the strip club claims to be working on a "decadent book" about oligarchs (but has yet to actually write anything). No, there is something more at the nucleus of art, something that still drives us to leave something of ourselves in its various forms.

It seems to be a straightforward narrative, yet The Ambassador is also a strangely compelling meditation on life, inspiration, creativity, and human relationships. As with The Pets, Ólafsson's humor tends towards absurdity and deadpan delivery and generally isn't the laugh-out-loud variety (although YMMV). I am still not sure what kept me reading but I am sufficiently confident that The Ambassador will have a similar effect on you as well. Surprisingly recommend-worthy.

Review Copy


Emily said...

This sounds pretty great - absurdism and deadpan delivery are both elements I really enjoy, and I've been intrigued to read more Icelandic lit. I'm also finding your description of everyone turning out to be an artist, oddly appealing. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

parrish lantern said...

Your review has me intrigued, also I was a fan of the Sugarcubes so will have to check this out.
Thanks Parrish

E. L. Fay said...

Emily: Well, like I said with the Saer book, I'm not sure everyone will like it. But I hope you do.

Parrish: I've never actually listened to the Sugarcubes. But having read two crazy Olafsson books, I probably should! You will probably like The Pets as well.

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