There are books that are so good you find it nearly impossible to put them down. You stay up late, take extra trips to the washroom at work, and even when you do finally manage to put them down for a while, they are easy to slide back into when you do pick them up again. And then there are books that are every bit as good, but are also dense or difficult or not very fast paced, and even though they are amazing and hard to put down, they're also very hard to pick back up again because of that density or what have you. The Ambassador is the second kind of book; absolutely brilliant, but it makes demands on the reader, and can be difficult to get into again once you actually manage to tear yourself away so you can go to work or what have you. Which, you know, is why it took me more than four months to read it, even though I loved every page.

Sturla Jón Jónsson is a poet with a new book out, and because this isn't a fantasy novel, he also has a day job as a building superintendent, where the tenants have no inkling of his literary career. He gets invited to a poetry festival in Lithuania as the Icelandic representative. Before leaving for Lithuania, Sturla spends an exorbitant amount of money on a fine coat, which is promptly stolen upon his arrival. Sturla is outraged by the affront, but he has ethical problems of his own to worry about. While at the festival, a newspaper in Iceland publicly accuses him of plagiarizing the poems in his new book from an unpublished manuscript written years earlier by his dead cousin Jónas.

Long-time readers of this blog—assuming there are any—will remember that I absolutely adored The Pets (also published by Open Letter; my review here), which as far as I know is the only other book of Ólafsson's to be translated into English. The Ambassador is every bit as good, but it's also entirely different. The Pets was abrupt and intense, while The Ambassador is slow and sprawling, though it eventually comes to rely on the same kind of tension, as Strurla's bad choices—and his inability to see them as bad choices—threatens to unravel his life. Additionally, Lytton Smith's translation is smooth and graceful, with a Nabokovian alienness to it, an elegance and precision that brings with it a hint of the foreign.

The Ambassador, by Bragi Ólafsson

Jul 01, 2011 11:17 AM

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