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The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson

…wrapped in a beautifully designed jacket
which will protect the poet's work from
dust, from the passage of time, and from use.
If we learn one thing from Bragi Ólafsson’s surly, sarcastic and epicurean narrator, it might be that the punishment does not always fit the crime. Indeed, reluctant poet Sturla Jón Jonsson (no, not that Sturla Jón; I mean the other, less well-known, non-peasant poet) manages to mostly get away with a number of minor misdemeanors, emerging relatively unscathed and unrepentant, and with a beautiful and intelligent woman on his arm to boot. For starters, although we don’t know this straight away, he’s stolen a large part of his latest collection of poetry, free from freedom, from his deceased cousin who, it turns out, became suicidal over the relationship he had with Sturla Jón’s own mother. He then writes a truly poisonous speculative article about the literary festival he has been invited to attend as an ambassador of Icelandic literary endeavor. Whilst in Lithuania (a country with an even smaller international literary tradition than Iceland and therefore, so Sturla Jón imagines, an even less relevant nation than his own) he loses his luxurious overcoat only to steal one from an American businessman in a café in an act of self-righteous revenge. He then fails to discharge his ambassadorial duties by drinking heavily (not in itself something unusual given the contemporaneous dipsomania evident) and deliberately missing buses and leaving gatherings on spurious pretexts, preferring instead such diverse sensuous entertainments as visiting a burlesque club in the company of two shady Russians or seeking satisfaction in an alleyway with a reeking Lithuanian prostitute. He is challenged over the theft of the coat, eventually, after a gentle upwelling of suspicion, but the claimant in his plagiarism case withdraws his accusation and his irreverent attitude at the festival eventually wins the heart of a Belarussian poet, with whom he is setting up a future home by novel’s end. He’s also considering the ultimate treachery – abandoning his art! Added to the gentle neglect of his ex-wife, children, and father, his list of crimes gives the lie to his continuing sense of moral superiority.

With no comeuppance, it might feel a little like Sturla Jón gets away with it, in the narratively unsatisfying sense, and it risks a lack of readerly sympathy with the character. However, unlikeable and mildly reprehensible as he might become over the course of the novel, his perfidy is what makes him less a cardboard cut-out villain and more an intriguingly unreliable narrator. He’s Will Self’s perfidious man, an incongruous but recognizable mix of sensitive and insensible, contemplative when considering his future as a writer, but with a bull-headed intransigence about nearly everything else. The trauma of his twenties, when his cousin commits suicide, the overshadowing presence of his mother, his own literary reputation, all are greeted with a typical casualness as if they were simply words on a page and not formative experiences and considerations of note.


In places it’s amusing, witty and sardonic, and whilst not as overtly entertaining as The Pets, the first and my favourite (and only other?) English translation of Ólafsson that I’ve read, it’s still full of clever observations, and is a wry commentary on literary pretensions and all those forty-somethings weary of the buffeting of early adulthood.

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