The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson; trans. by Lytton Smith
Bragi Ólafsson’s novel The Ambassador is at heart a picaresque. With a light and humorous touch, Bragi relates the travails of Sturla Jón Jónsson, an Icelandic poet whom we meet when he is preparing to go to an international poetry festival in Vilnius. Sturla fancies himself a cultural ambassador; hence the novel’s title. The main drama is an accusation of plagiarism Sturla faces back at home: an old school-friend recognizes Sturla’s new poetry collection as a manuscript by Sturla’s long-dead cousin Jónas. Meanwhile, at the festival in Lithuania, Sturla faces another accusation of theft—also based in fact—but this time of an overcoat.
Bragi, once most well-known as Björk’s bassist in The Sugarcubes, has published four novels and several poetry collections in Icelandic. The Ambassador is his second novel to be translated into English, following The Pets, also from Open Letter Books, in 2008. Bragi the novelist is a consummate arranger, most interested in the trouble that different people and objects get into when they are put in a certain place in a narrative. He very nicely summarizes this style in the voice of The Pets’ protagonist Emil:
And yet sometimes it’s as if people and objects are put in a certain place on earth just to suit the whims of some eccentric; as if someone up above is amusing himself by arranging us as he likes, contrary to all common sense. I have sometimes felt as if I’ve been picked up by the scruff of my neck and moved, in different situations, either to rescue me from some calamity or—which I suspect is more often the case—to deliberately get me into trouble.
Like The Pets, Bragi’s new novel revels in the amusing but believable accidents that complicate situations and stories. But the accidents of The Ambassador are the accidents of culture; the placement of objects, words, languages, and works of art in the international cultural field. The Ambassador is a cultural and cosmopolitan picaresque, as much about the travails of cultural objects as human subjects.
I made a list of the proper names of artists, poets, musicians, books, films, and operas that appear in The Ambassador, and in fewer than 300 pages I counted over 100 such references. (I’m sure I missed many.) Sturla considers his Icelandic poet predecessors like Þórbergur Þórðarson, Jóhannes úr Kötlum, and Dagur Sigurðarson; familiar international cultural figures like Kafka, Gogol, and Baudelaire; and others as diverse as Antony and the Johnsons, Mario Camus, Christopher Isherwood, and Karen Dalton. With such breadth, Bragi’s range of reference is very amenable to translation. This is no surprise, as only 300,000 people speak Icelandic, compared to a billion or more English speakers.
You could say that Bragi is a name-dropper, and that his range is very broad. Sometimes, indeed, the names really are only dropped: they are the objects that make up Sturla’s world (he is after all a poet-ambassador). Bragi brings them fleetingly, leading us to take few of them seriously. But some of the names really aren’t “dropped” at all. Among others that perhaps I didn’t catch, there are extended allusions to Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, to the films Psycho and The Apartment, and to songs and albums by Rod Stewart and the Icelandic rockstar Megas. Some of these are obvious and not remarked upon by Sturla or the narrator, like the overcoat Sturla buys in the opening pages, and links to his self-worth, and which is of course stolen—and only after Sturla happens to comment upon a volume of Gogol. But beyond this, Sturla understands his own travails in light of art and literature. He is conscious of his “silly need…to constantly look for allusions in everything, in the past and in the future.” Sturla’s memories always come with the films, records, song lyrics, and poems that accompanied them.
In Vilnius, for example, Sturla is hunting after the translation of the Lithuanian street name “Prospektas” where his hotel is located, because it reminds him of the Gogol story “Nevsky Prospect.” But the woman he asks seems “not to recognize the word, or else she misunderstands the question:
Sturla repeats the question in vain.
“You must ask Elena,” reiterates the girl in English.
“But where is Elena?” asks Sturla, also in English, thinking how peculiar it sounds to ask after people by first name when he’s not been in the country more than two hours. “She was going to bring coffee up to my room.”
“She is gone,” replies the girl, letting him know he will have to wait until the morning. “Will you be staying after tomorrow?” she asks.
“Yes, I will be here,” answers Sturla, and straight away the photograph from the back of the record sleeve of Will You be Staying After Sunday by The Peppermint Rainbow pops up in his mind: three rather ungainly young men in white shoes, light blue pants, and dark shirts with light blue neckties, and two black-haired, sun-bronzed women in white leather boots and light blue, short summer dresses, the same color as their companions’ pants. This makes him think again about his five children …
This simple exchange in a hotel lobby is cosmopolitan to the core: between an Icelandic man and a probably-not-Lithuanian woman, conducted in English, in Lithuania, written about in Icelandic, and reaching countless more readers in English translation. The entitlement and ease with which they names are presented betrays a comfort in the mobility of culture which characterizes every page of The Ambassador.
Since the basic plot of The Ambassador regards plagiarism and theft, Bragi’s broader stylistic and thematic interest in allusion, translation, and cultural mobility is appropriate and deeply richens the narrative. Inevitably, Bragi’s excessive allusion seems like an apology for Sturla’s plagiarism of his cousin’s poems. Sturla comments at one point: “You read someone else’s work, and inevitably something filters into your work.” How can anything be plagiarism, if you are like Sturla, and see “allusions in everything”?
The allusive meanderings of The Ambassador bring up that controversial question, which makes this novel much less tiresome than it would be were it merely an account of the somewhat predictable accidents that befall Sturla. We are following the poet-ambassador-thief on paths not only through Reykjavík and Vilnius but through a broad cultural field, with more interesting obstacles and ethical issues attendant.
Reviewed by Daniel Benjamin
The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson; trans. by Lytton Smith
Open Letter Books, 2010
Paper, 298 pp, $15.95
Posted in Reviews