x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Ambassador: Icelandic satire by a former Sugarcube

Bragi Ólafson's The Ambassador offers a biting literary satire that questions the nature of art and personal identity.

The singer-songwriter Björk is, of course, the most famous contemporary Icelander. Not that this distinction is in itself very meaningful. 

Iceland, which has produced some of the most important works of European letters, ancient and modern, from the epic poems called sagas to the novels of Halldor Laxness, has remained in more or less continuous literary obscurity even among the Northern European nations. (Compare, for example, Laxness's fame with that of Isak Dinesen and Knut Hamsun.) Given the fickleness of the English-speaking literary establishment, it is always possible that Iceland will enjoy its own vogue in the not-too-distant future, as "exotic" literatures often do. Until that day, however, the nation's boosters will have to content themselves with Björk, a goodwill messenger from Reykjavik's golden era as a party town, still touring the world.

How strange it is, then, to read The Ambassador,  the most recent novel from Bragi Ólafsson, who wears many of his native country's literary laurels, and then to discover that this is the same Bragi Ólafsson who played bass for the Sugarcubes, the band in which Björk sang lead vocals. This coincidence binding Ólafsson to his (undeservedly) far more famous former bandmate would (if The Ambassador expresses its author's sensibilities reliably) probably amuse him. Precisely such strange and seemingly insignificant machinations of chance pervade the novel and animate the actions of its disreputable poet protagonist, Sturla Jon Jonsson.

The plot is sparse. Sturla travels around Reykjavik, preparing for a journey to Lithuania, where he will be participating in a book festival whose value he has serious doubts about. He buys an expensive overcoat, later stolen in a café in Vilnius, visits his father, only 16 years older than himself, and mother (ditto), and (through Olafsson's subtle artifice) opens his memories to us, of his children, his old schoolmates, his youth and burgeoning poetic ability. 

Sturla has, in fact, just published a new book of poems, called free from freedom. This, we learn as the story progresses from Reykjavik to Vilnius and from there to the suburban town where the book festival is to take place, is largely plagiarised from the never-published work of his long-dead cousin Jonas, who committed suicide in his late teens. As the fact of this plagiarism begins to attract notice in Iceland (one of the dead boy's friends tells a newspaper about the unpublished manuscript), Sturla travels deeper into Lithuania, wearing a new overcoat which he himself has stolen, avoiding his festival responsibilities and launching the first volleys in a romance with a Belorussian poetess. All the while, Ólafsson carefully increases the tension, drawing both comedy, claustrophobic menace and genuine pathos from the most banal occasion – a poetry reading in semi-rural Lithuania.

Given its constituent parts, The Ambassador might have been just another satire of literary life, were it not for the bizarre, yet fully convincing, inner life of its hero. In his own country he is constantly being mistaken for another, better known, aged farmer-poet who happens to share his name. Sturla doesn't let this bother him greatly, any more than he does the various other indignities which are visited upon him: a reading ruined by a barista's use of a rattling espresso machine; his father's accusations that the trip to Lithuania is a cover for sex tourism; the mounting (and correct) suspicions on the part of the reading's organisers that Sturla is some kind of petty criminal. 

Olafsson leaves the source of this serene detachment unclear. But whatever its origin, Sturla's placid and bemused acuity, punctuated by eruptions of appetite and desire, is precisely what fascinates us about him. Whether he is talking with his numerous children over the phone, watching a Lithuanian stripshow with two burly Russians, or meditating about his own art, his senses are sharp and his past is always at hand: "At that moment – as Sturla thinks about the information he has given his neighbour about his published books – he has the quite amazing realisation that the whole flock of books he's published under his name (if you can call seven a "whole flock") are in circulation: in libraries, on the shelves of literary-minded people, in bookstores. He has contributed something to that form, a form he has by now spent roughly a quarter-century devoting the bulk of his spare time and energy to – or is it a formlessness (which one could also say about time and energy)? How widely held, for example, is his father's opinion that if he really wants to continue with poetry, then he should ball up the poetry into one continuous text and hide it there, because this impatient world no longer has the appetite or attention span for regular linebreaks and for words that come in outfits that remind one of frayed rags (prose, on the other hand, wears a carefully cut, broad-shouldered suit) - in other words, for a dense, weighty book wrapped in a beautifully designed jacket which will protect the poet's work from dust, from the passage of time, and from use."

This meditation rises out of a conversation the poet has with a bachelor neighbour in a lift in their apartment building, where Sturla works, for the extra income, as superintendent. The job is just another minor humiliation to which he seems oblivious, surveying his own career without acrimony or overstatement. Instead he considers the question of his own value to the world; heady stuff for a hallway encounter.

So who is Sturla Jon Jonsson: a sensually-greedy building superintendent posing as an artist or a quietly suffering philosopher? He might be both. It is shortly after the hallway scene that we learn that Sturla is capable of plagiarising a dead relative (and of coming to regard the work as utterly his own) and stealing an overcoat from a Vilnius café to replace his own. Is this acting out of character? At first glance, perhaps. Instead wallowing in guilt over stealing from the dead (as we might well expect from such a contemplator), he persists in the cold-eyed daring that allowed him to appropriate the work in the first place. Instead of meekly assenting to the random theft of his new, much-valued overcoat (the novel's first scene is a lengthy, hilarious account of its purchase and Sturla's instant besottedness with it), he strikes back and swipes a stranger's. 

These acts, in the moment of their commission, surprise us: their deep psychological consistency isn't immediately apparent. Certainly, Sturla's makes nothing of the connection between his two thefts. But this isn't so remarkable: who doesn't live in ignorance of his own character? Who hasn't given in to dark, absurd impulses? Who doesn't ponder, at the most unexpected times, his own existential worth? But Ólafsson lets us see Sturla acting and speaking in both these registers, the acutely meditative and the brazenly loutish, and this doubleness places his protagonist in the company of other great modern petit-bourgeois freaks, from Sándor Márai's quartet of rebels to Halldor Laxness's criminals, churchmen, and subsistence farmers, a lineage stretching back to Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, Dostoevsky's raw youth Arkady Dolgoruky, and the enigmatic interlopers who appear out of the mists, so to speak, in Knut Hamsun's novels.

Sturla avoids real punishment for his crimes. And in spite of ourselves, we applaud. Literary theft from the dead is a means rendered valid by long tradition; the world did (in a karmic sense) owe him a coat. He reaps significant benefits from them, too, entering into a promising new liaison with the Belorussian poetess and learning the truth about his cousin's suicide. 

Ólafsson doesn't herald this development with any sort of trumpet blast. It comes quietly from the lips of the now-repentant suburban lawyer who first accused Sturla of plagiarism. What's more, there isn't the slightest hint that Sturla will change in the aftermath of his fortuitous victories. That quiet intransigence makes The Ambassador far more than a corrosive joke aimed at literary pretension or a send-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 is the regional literature with such persuasive envoys.

Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review. His first novel, The November Criminals, is published by Doubleday.