‘The Ambassador’ Buys Coat, Loses It
'The Ambassador' by Bragi Ólafsson (Open Letter Books)
An image that runs through Bragi Ólafsson’s “The Ambassador” is that of “the house on the hill / which we face towards / the mother, the window / the darkness of shadows.” This is an excerpt from one of the poems written by the main protagonist, Sturla Jón. The shadows that Sturla describes in his poem are echoed in his own life—he has a dark past and troubling recollections of his family—but like the figure of the mother in his poem, they are more of a presence than a force. Sturla’s troubles never quite germinate into something that can be resolved, but rather inform Sturla’s character in a way that’s far more realistic. He’s moved beyond the time in his life for tragedy, but these memories still shape his interactions with the world and other people. “The Ambassador” provides a close study of a few key days in the life of its quirky protagonist. But while its meditations on Sturla’s all-too-human conflicts are interesting, they are not compelling enough to carry Ólafsson’s novel.
Sturla is a middle-aged Icelandic poet travelling to a poetry festival in Lithuania. He is prone to remarking on his role as an ambassador of his small nation to this other, even more out-of-the-way place. But though he makes it clear that he is reading his poetry as a representative of Iceland, he is not entirely sure that wants to be a poet anymore. He’s not quite sure what his poetry means—in fact, he’s not sure that poets should know what their poetry means at all. He seems far more worried about the fact that he’s lost the hazelnut he’d picked up as a good luck charm than he does about poetic matters.
Sturla’s listlessness informs the tone of the entire novel. Divorced, Sturla works as the superintendent of an apartment building, and seems slightly at a loss for finding meaning in his writing. He seems to feel far more deeply about the overcoat that he loses than he does about his poetry. He drinks with an almost religious fervor—a trait shared by most of the people who surround him. As the book unfolds, the shadows of his past are revealed (the details of his relationships with his family are rather dark) but it is never entirely clear how much they really disturb him. This gives a realistic quality to the novel; though the past exists, 22 years later, life is centered on other matters. It is never entirely ruled out that Sturla is haunted by his memories, but Ólafsson seems rather to suggest that Sturla, like most people, is only sporadically troubled by the unresolved issues in his life.
The most compelling element of “The Ambassador,” though, is neither Sturla’s childhood nor his poetry, but rather the sporadic strangeness of Sturla’s present character. While he’s not always likeable, he’s entirely believable—even in the almost surreal moments when he justifies stealing someone’s overcoat because someone stole his or wandering into a strip club because of a sense that it’s a ‘writerly’ thing to do. Though he’s often a brutally sarcastic, mocking character, there are times when he shows himself to be very lonely and vulnerable. It’s possible that his is a farce only insofar as the world he sees is a farce—both Sturla and his world are only partially serious. Sturla’s exploits have elements of almost absurd slapstick comedy, but there is something serious in them, too. Though the tics of Sturla’s character are sometimes consuming, they’re not incomprehensible—in a world like this, after all, who doesn’t need a good overcoat?
There’s a kind of dark comedy which has a profoundly cathartic ending—one that is able to resolve the angst underlying a situation by reaffirming more powerful forces in human life, such as solidarity with other people. It seems, at some points in “The Ambassador,” that this is the sort of ending to which Bragi Ólafsson aspires—one with a sense of profound relief as his character finds a source of happiness that does not depend on his career or the international reception of his poetry, but rather on meaningful relationships with others. But, while there is an element of existential drama in the end of “The Ambassador,” Sturla seems too quirky to find this kind of affirmation. He is far too nervous about the idea of not having a good cup of coffee in the evening to really ever be happy.
“The Ambassador” is a novel which is frequently entertaining in its juxtaposition of farce, whimsy, and profound elements of character. It’s unpredictable, and this adds no small measure of interest to the work as a whole—but its unpredictability often seems to result in false starts, and the end concludes far fewer issues than are raised. It also makes it hard to be swept up in the work as a whole, for while Ólafsson manages to portray a great many emotions in the work, few are developed enough to be consistently compelling. Sturla is a man who, despite his profound quirkiness, seems to reflect a great deal of the contemporary soul—but it’s a dim reflection, and much of its depth remains unrealized.