The Ambassador Paperback – Oct 15 2010
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... [The] quiet intransigence makes The Ambassador far more than a corrosive joke aimed at literary pretension or a sen-up of middle-aged mediocrity. Rather, it;s an elusive, almost fabulistic study of the endlessly interesting question of character and of the representativeness of our deeds. Happy in the regional literature with such pervasive envoys."-Sam Munson, The National "
About the Author
Bragi Olafsson is most well known for playing in The Sugarcubes. He is the author of several books of poetry, a number of plays, and five novels. His works have been finalists for the Icelandic Literature Prize and Nordic Literature Prize, and he has received the Icelandic Bookseller's Award.
Lytton Smith is a poet and translator, and a founding member of Blind Tiger Poetry. His book, The All-Purpose Magical Tent was published by Nightboat. His poems and reviews have appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, The Believer, and Boston Review.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Sturla spends most of his time fantasizing about being a different kind of writer and, decides to throw over being a poet in favor of becoming an avaunt garde prose writer. Good luck with that. What Sturla wants is unclear, other than an expensive new overcoat, which he buys himself at the beginning of the book and fondles through the first 4 chapters, and which is later lost/stolen. But I suppose it's a woman.
His chances of meeting one may be better when he travels to Lithuania to give a poetry reading. He makes the trip reluctantly and deprecatingly, filled a priori with resentment of the other poets who will be there. However, he does meet a woman. Liliya is her name; she's Belarusian, also a writer, and lives with her mother in Minsk. Even at the end of the novel, Sturla remains an ineffective fantasizer about Liliya, her mother, and an imagined visit he will make to their shared apartment in Minsk.
Olafsson is good at getting nowhere fast; he annoys because he salts the inaction with references to obscure Icelandic poets, international artists, photographers, writers, and far too many street names. At least 30% of the details included in the book are unnecessary details and would be better left out. It is a novel of incident but not action. Still, Olafsson does write with a wry sardonic humor, a humor that grows as the novel goes on. Yet, the reader is left with the impression that Olafsson is sneering at his own main character; and by extension sneering at the state of poetry (and poets, except for dead ones) in Iceland -- as if it's a country unfit to produce finer literature, great writers of any kind. [Himself included?]
The "ambassador" in the title may be the stuffed puffins, so nicknamed by the Westman Islanders. But it's really, Benedict, Sturla's deceased grandfather who was ambassador to Norway. Wait, no! It's really the name of the hotel where he meets Liliya. It certainly isn't Sturla who is unfit to be an envoy for any purpose to anywhere, much less on behalf of poetry to Lithuania -- even if sent by his government. And that may be Olafsson's ultimate joke.
It's tough being a poet. First, there's the whole stereotype of the cerebral, tortured artist who offers the world little but obscure verses. Then your Dad starts doing the passive-aggressive thing and slights your work whenever he can. Your son calls your career a `hobbyhorse'. You get no respect.
This is the world for Sturla Jon, a sucessful poet from Iceland. He's tough, sarcastic, and is finding it hard to even respect himself anymore. He still writes poetry, but since he's hit fifty, he wants to do something more. Novels, maybe. He's dissatisfied with most of his life, and it's starting to show:
"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 to make one big step away from the starving artist that he imagines typical poets to be, he goes out and buys a top-notch overcoat, high style and big money. He's old-fashioned, and decides the cell phone pocket will be perfect for his cigarettes. That one detail shows a great deal about him: he isn't fitting in with the times.
"One moment Sturla feels there is depth and purpose to his writing but the next...he, the poet, starts to think that he can't see anything in the production of poetry but emptiness and the surface emotion that still lifes offer: more or less beautiful textures, at best, things better suited to being the subject of a watercolor on the wall of a room."
So with this new overcoat, and an invitation to a poetry festival in Lithuania, he makes a new plan. He's going to move towards an experimental form of literature, and 'review' the events of the festival before it even happens. His cynical and disparaging review reflects all the clichés of poetry, and poetry festivals in general. Bad food, terrible lodging, and worse, pretentious poets who take themselves far too seriously than he thinks they deserve. His caustic review makes him feel fresh and innovative, and he leaves for Lithuania with low expectations.
However, despite the fact he condemns the poet's lifestyle as often as possible, it's revealing that he still wants to go. Why not just skip it? This is one of the complicating facets to Sturla: he's not really sure what he wants to be, and at his age, it's hard to change. His life is full of contradictions: he wins money (that he doesn't need) at a slot machine when he's just killing time, and his aging father gets more attention from the ladies than he does. While he works part-time as a building superintendent (possibly the diametric opposite of a poet), he likes to hint to people that he's a published poet. Who is the real Sturla?
Only in Lithuania does Sturla even begin to understand just how he fits in, and his exploits there are terrifying, frantic, and sometimes slapstick. He realizes that his "predicted" review is not only wrong, but almost criminally so.
Lest this sound too serious, keep in mind that Sturla is possibly one of the funniest characters I've run across. He's snarky and witty, and throughout the narrative there is a remarkable amount of humor as he pokes fun at himself, his family, and most of all, the literary world. The author, Bragi Olafsson, writes Sturla as the least expected poetic figure: needy yet badass, sensitive but acerbic, and always unpredictable.
The book in whole is more comedic than serious. Yet it also gives a unique glimpse into the world of literature and translation, cultural disparities, and historical influences that define a geographic location. I loved the little things that make Sturla a real person: the way he's annoyed by his Dad's constant calls on the new cell phone he finally gets, his simple desire to just get a cup of decent coffee, and the way he mentally rehearses little remarks to himself to get them right. Additionally, Olafsson hints at the need for poetry and literature as a means of dealing with the contradictions and complexities we all face.
Okay, so you've now read The Pets. If you liked it and are looking for more of the same, please continue reading this review. If you didn't care for it, don't even bother reading the rest of this review. Trust me (again)...you won't like The Ambassador. The plots are very different, but the schtick is the same...an average sort of guy is shown to have little or no ability to control events and instead moves through life largely in reaction to others. And these actions, the characters that cause them and the hapless response by our feckless narrator are the stuff of wry, dry Icelandic humor. Or not.
The narrator is a poet selected to represent his country, Iceland, at a poetry festival in Lithuania just when he decides to stop writing poetry. The meandering book covers about a week in the narrator's life as we watch him ineptly fail to do a large number of things. The only thing he successfully does in the entire book is to purchase the most expensive piece of clothing he has ever purchased, an overcoat. Though it is really an Overcoat, with endless nods to Gogol's supremely better told tale of lose. It is typical of the narrator's ineptness that not only does he manage to have the overcoat stolen by an obvious thief, but when it becomes clear that he will never recover the garment instead of dying, as in Gogol's tale, he steals the overcoat of the festival's wealthy Unites States sponsor in plain sight of the festival's star US poet. He is drunk, irresponsible, a thief and maybe the poems he is to read at the festival were actually stolen from another. Oh our poor hapless narrator.
As the book starts the narrator has decided to switch from writing poetry to prose. He writes a description of the poetry festival before it occurs. This article is included in the book, and it is typical of the over-the-top nature of this book that instead of simply telling us it is a pedantic long-winded article, he includes the entire 13 page thing in the book! The narrator later decides to write a thriller, noting that all this requires is that "they just need to create some uncertainty about whether or not the protagonist will make his Big Decision." Well, not really. And in this book there are only small decisions and they are more fallen into than made.
"When irony becomes someone's habitual way of expressing themselves, then they are quick to lose sight of how uniform the stance has become-and how tiring." Well said Mr. Olafsson. Too bad you didn't follow your own advice.