Buchmesse challenge review for March: The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson
German title: Der Botschafter (2009)
Danish title: Ambassadøren (2008)
Genre: Literary fiction
Year of publication: 2006
Setting & time: Iceland Lithuania; contemporary
Bragi Ólafsson is an Icelandic poet, playwright and novelist (and former member of the band The Sugarcubes). This novel was nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize and the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 2006. It was published in English in 2010.
The novel tells the story of Sturla Jón Jónsson, a middle-aged Icelandic poet who has just published what he intends to be his last book of poems. He is on his way to a poetry festival in Lithuania when the story begins. Once he is there trouble starts piling up, starting with a man back home in Iceland who accuses him of plagiarism and escalating from there.
This novel is full of very subtle humour and observations of Icelandic society and Icelanders, and specifically of what it‘s like to be a poet in Iceland. It is also a story of a middle-aged man who has come to a turning point in what doesn‘t seem to have been a very productive life – apart from a handful of poetry volumes (copies of which have only sold in the low hundreds) and the five children he managed to have with his wife before she divorced him. Sturla gets into one scrape after another, is not fully understood by anyone, and does some things that are never fully explained in the story.
The narrative is rambling and Sturla is the kind of hopeless, colourless character whom authors love to propel into unusual circumstances. I didn‘t find him particularly sympathetic, and I don‘t think he is meant to be – he is rather firmly an anti-hero. The themes of theft and poetry run through the whole narrative and each instance introduces a turning point in the adventures and character development of Sturla.
The narrative, while tied together by these themes, is nevertheless somewhat rambling and it is sometimes difficult to see just why certain elements are included in the story. Another reviewer mentioned narrative dead-ends, and I agree that there are certain things that seem to be leading somewhere but then just disappear, never to be mentioned again. But somehow one doesn‘t get overly annoyed by this, as these details are usually insignificant enough not to make one want to know more, even if one had hoped they would lead somewhere interesting. It isn‘t really until the last third of the story that the plot begins to thicken, and then the narrative suddenly becomes more streamlined and to the point, presenting the reader with a crime story and injecting romance into the narrative.
Taken all together, this isn‘t a bad novel, but neither is it likely to have you writing to the author to demand more of the same. It‘s too rambling to be solid and too wordy in the wrong way to be brilliant, but it does have some merit, not least the humour and the dead-on realistic description of a man whose dead-end life takes an unexpected turning. 3 stars.