Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Buttoning up That “Overcoat” in The Ambassador

Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador (Sendiherrann in the original Icelandic) is a peculiarly entertaining book that might not sound very intriguing in a brief summary: a divorced Icelandic poet who works as an apartment building super travels to Lithuania to represent Iceland at a poetry conference. During the course of the novel, Sturla Jón Jónsson buys and loses an expensive overcoat, is accused of plagiarism, meets a Belarusian poetess, and drinks a lot.

The Ambassador isn’t my perfect book – it feels a bit longer than it should be, with a few too many flashbacks and memories of things like a childhood road trip and Sturla’s own children – but it’s a fun novel about originality and art, thanks to translator Lytton Smith’s rendition of Ólafsson’s humor. Sturla also manages to work himself into awkward, mildly absurd situations, like not getting onto the bus to go to the conference and stubbornly perpetuating lies. I found him an oddly sympathetic character, despite some alarmingly stupid decisions.

The Ambassador caught me in its first pages, during Sturla’s expedition to buy an overcoat at Aquascutum. The coat costs more than Sturla seems to be able to spend, reminding me of the clerk Akaky Akakevich, from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” (on my Russian blog here). Ólafsson drops Gogol’s name, too, confirming that my suspicions about a Gogol influence were grounded. As in Gogol’s story, an overcoat is stolen, and Sturla borrows another poet’s poetry, a practice that isn’t too many steps away from Akaky Akakevich’s job as a copy clerk. All of which means that Ólafsson borrows themes and plot turns from Gogol, displaying Gogol’s influence on his own fiction… which is largely about influence. Everyone takes something from predecessors.

Ólafsson links his coat and book themes in another way, too, when he compares Sturla’s waterproof overcoat’s fabric to “a laminated dust jacket” at the very beginning of The Ambassador. Near the end of the novel, he compares the “waxy texture” that keeps a coat’s wearer dry to the protection a book’s dust jacket gives to writers. The title word “ambassador” has multiple meanings, too, including Sturla serving (sort of) as Iceland’s ambassador at the poetry conference.

There’s plenty more to enjoy in The Ambassador, particularly for readers who like – as I guess I do – novels about travelers who drink a lot, poets who like to go to conferences, and the peculiarities of the former Soviet Union. Besides, I have to think that any Icelandic novel with a character from Minsk has something going for it.

A big thank you to Open Letter's Chad Post, who is always a great source of information about new translations, for sending me a review copy of The Ambassador.

An excerpt of The Ambassador is available here.

Up next: Bo Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Dreams.


  1. Great review as always! This was a surprising book wasn't it? A bit lighter elementally than some? Not in a bad way, but a fun way.

    Somehow I got a sense of him being a version of Stig Saeterbakken...

  2. Thanks, Amy! Yes, "surprising" is a good word to describe this book. I always enjoy reading books that are light-but-heavy, like this one. I've been thinking, ever since I posted, that The Ambassador is probably a very individual book: I focused on the Gogol connection but other readers probably focus on completely different elements. I'm looking forward to reading your review to see what you found most interesting!

    Now I'm going to find out who Stig Saeterbakken is...

  3. Stig is a Norwegian novelist who is most known for Siamese, which is a very odd and distressing book that creeps you out as you eagerly continue to read. Not a mystery so much as the horror of aging...

    I also listen to him read on Youtube and love the sound of the Norwegian. More lyrical than I expected.

  4. Amy, Siamese certainly does sound odd and distressing. (I read this review on The Complete Review.)

    I also love the sound of Norwegian. Then again, I also love Norway!