It was January of 2011 whenâ€”working my way through the lung-high drifts of snowâ€”I decided to focus on reading international writers. â€œNo, wait!â€ I cried out, raising a mitten-clad hand, just in time to catch the arm of another Brooklynite plunging to the icy sidewalk. â€œFunny international writers,â€ I said, easing him down lovingly onto a flotilla of snow and garbage. I stepped over my felled comrade and briskly made my way to the bookstore, where I bought a copy of The Ambassador by Bragi Ã“lafsson.
One claim about plot goes like this: there are only two of them. Someone comes to town, or someone leaves town. The Ambassador lands squarely in the latter tradition. Sturla JÃ³n JÃ³nsson, an Icelandic poet with a new book out, attends a literary festival in Lithuania. But before he departs, he has a number of things to do, including buying an expensive new overcoat. Heâ€™s admired the coat for some time, but only now, with his new book coming out, can he afford it. There is pleasure to be had in the fine details of the coat:
The other inside pocket is also worth mentioning: small, designed perhaps for a wallet, it contains a small, dark blue, velvet bag (thatâ€™s one of the things that makes this item unique, a bag made from velvet) and in this charming little bag, which you draw closed with a yellow silk cord, are two spare buttons, for the unlikely event that the owner managed to lose the originals and had to replace them. But thereâ€™s little danger of that happening, since the stitching is, as was mentioned earlier, guaranteed to last a lifetime.
Bragi is loyal to the Shakespearean tradition of comedy in The Ambassador, so in the beginning, Sturla enjoys a run of good fortune. Not only does he have the beautiful new coat and his recent book, but he wins a tidy sum of money from a slot machine on his way to visit his father. The crash of coins in the slot machineâ€™s tray signals the end of his luck. His coat pockets heavy with his winnings, Sturla walks into the rest of the novel, where he strings together an impressive list of blunders, errors, and misjudgments.
Because my own life is filled with blunders, errors, and misjudgments, I love reading about characters who share my ineptitude. But I had trouble with this narrative. Namely, I kept lifting off of it and drifting around the room. The story felt limp, not only because Sturla is unbothered by his mistakes, but because the narrative lacks a conflict to give it forward thrust. Itâ€™s also cluttered with unnecessary asidesâ€”weâ€™re laboriously introduced to Sturlaâ€™s family, but itâ€™s not clear who the reader is supposed to focus on. (The answer isâ€”none of them.) Finally, armed with a huge cup of decaf to hone my focus, I made it to the point where Sturla arrives in Lithuania, 100 pages into the book. This must be where the real troubles begin.
Andâ€”after another sluggish 50 pagesâ€”they do. Exactly halfway through the novel, Sturla is accused of plagiarizing the entirety of his new book. Soon after, his new coat is stolen, and thus denuded, he meets a bewitching Belarusian poet and falls for her. These three events energize the story. But too soon, everything is easily resolved, with very little effort or action on the part of Sturla.
Another weight on the story is the repetition of certain words. I initially thought it might be a translation problem, when I noticed the word â€œsneakâ€ in two sentences back-to-back:
Glancing around, Sturla sneaks his hand into a white bowl full of light brown, cylindrical sugar packets, and grabs several. Looking down at them in his palm, he counts them and sneaks them into one of the side-pockets of the overcoat.
But the repetition shows up in the dialogue too, contributing to the sluggish feel of the narrative. Here is Sturla speaking to his mother:
â€œDo you remember the folder you gave to JÃ³nas?â€ Sturla repeats, replacing the black plastic folder by the wall at the end of the table.
â€œDo I remember the folder? What folder … and what about this folder? Why on earth would you be upset about some folder?â€
â€œBecause I had always wanted to own it. But right after grandfather died you all of a sudden gave the folder to JÃ³nas. Because he was such a wonderful student.â€
â€œA wonderful student?â€ FannÃ½ smiles half-sadly, and looks around pensively.
Fewer folders and sneaks and wonderful students would help this narrative come up to the brisk speed that comedy requires.
Bragiâ€™s projectâ€”hapless dudes who wander blithely through disasters of their own makingâ€”is not a bad one. But comedy needs to be strengthened with narrative pull, and ruthlessly edited. Before turning to literary pursuits, Bragi was the bassist for the Sugarcubes, keeping songs grounded as BjÃ¶rk bounced and growled and flew in every possible direction. This is exactly what he needs to bring to his writingâ€”a bass line of conflict or desire or emotional response. And then, yes: blunder and err and freak out or break down, and the reader will happily follow you.
The Ambassador is available from Open Letter Books.