Published December 3, 2010
Who’s not afraid of the big bad wolf of plagiarism? The poet and central character in Bragi Ólafsson’s second novel to come out in English, ‘The Ambassador’, that’s who.
‘The Ambassador’ is an apt name, not only for the subject matter of the source text (‘Sendiherrann’, 2006), but for the translated text, the envoy of a minor language within the hegemony of English. The story follows Sturla Jón Jónsson, a middle-aged poet/apartment superintendent/deadbeat father of five as he travels from Reykjavík to attend a poetry festival in Druskininkai, a small town in Lithuania, and almost simultaneously faces charges of plagiarism back home and of petty theft abroad. In Iceland, the newspapers allege that Sturla’s latest book of poems is actually the work of his deceased cousin, while certain dignitaries at the poetry festival accuse him of having stolen the expensive overcoat of a major patron of the festival.
When Laurence Sterne wrote ‘Tristram Shandy’ in mid-eighteenth century England, he incorporated entire passages from the works of others, which would later incite accusations of plagiarism. Yet today, ‘Tristram Shandy’ is considered a forerunner to stream of consciousness and self-ref lexive modes of literary expression. Like ‘Tristram Shandy’, ‘The Ambassador’ is primarily concerned with how both poetry and life experiences are formed through what John Locke first termed “the association of ideas.” In brief, the relations that ideas (or words or family relations) have with one and other are more telling than the essence of the ideas themselves.
Sturla Jón is a poet who does not apologise for his material and intellectual borrowings. By revealing how the poet’s memories and ideas only endlessly beget other associated memories and ideas, the novel questions the notion of original creativity. And Sturla’s fancy yet replaceable overcoats underline his inescapable indebtedness. The overcoat also alludes to the Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s short story by the same name. In some way, ‘The Ambassador’ reads like a narrative re-working of Dostoevsky’s famous quote regarding his literary contemporaries and their predecessor Nikolai Gogol: “We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’”. Sturla is himself an admirer of Gogol.
Despite these various allusions, ‘The Ambassador’ remains accessible and funny. It is not necessary to understand every reference in order to appreciate the humour of the novel. Indeed, a large part of the humour lies in poking fun of the idiosyncrasies of the artist figure, a paradox given the commonplaceness of such a figure in Icelandic society. Throughout the novel, Sturla continually encounters dubious characters who claim to be poets and artists—a salesperson in a men’s clothing store, a dim-witted neighbour, a fat Russian at a strip club, a taxi driver in Druskininkai. Thus the artist figure is humorously demystified: if everyone’s an artist, then nobody is.
Just as Sturla knows that releasing a few CDs “isn’t necessarily any indication of success or fame nowadays,” he also questions the social merit of prioritising personal creativity: “Is there anywhere in the world where you can’t find insignificant men struggling to write some insignificant texts which are of no use to anyone but themselves—in other words, useless products that actually prevent the people who write them from being human beings of any value.” It is this deprecating self-awareness of the relative insignificance, even damaging effects, of his selfish obsessions, that endears Sturla to the reader.
The novel’s humorous overcoat only thinly shrouds a darker underbelly. There is something evidently both comical and profane about having an apartment super double as a poet, which is reinforced through one of the poet’s drinking companions, the “big-bellied” Russian oligarch who proclaims himself a novelist over champagne at a strip-tease show. The gross, gooey stain that Sturla finds on the carpet in the middle of his hotel room in Vilnius underscores this rank ambiance.
It seems no coincidence that the Icelander finds himself among the Lithuanian other, a favourite ethnic scapegoat in the domestic discourse about immigrants in Iceland. However, Sturla’s prejudices and feelings of alienation are soon displaced by his affinity for the beast of the east. As one of Sturla’s daydreams brings to mind, Icelandic homes also have their history of “heavy air, saturated with meat fat or potato-and-cabbage stock.”
‘The Ambassador’ lends itself well to translation, not least because it comments on the process of translation itself. Indeed, the novel at times gives the reader the rare pleasure of sensing that the translated text is actually a richer realisation of the source text. For example, with Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’ still in mind, it hardly seems accidental that Lytton Smith should translate Sturla’s son’s disdain for his father’s “interest” (áhugamál) in poetry as “that hobbyhorse, poetry”. Lytton Smith’s brave use of foreignising techniques is also refreshing. In addition to preserving the sometimescumbersome long sentences of the source text with their attendant dashes and semi-colons, Lytton sometimes goes so far as to translate proverbs and idioms word-for-word, producing brilliant novelties such as when the chapter ‘Skúlagata’ opens with “[t]he clock shows seven minutes on the way towards 12:00,” or when Sturla’s father calls his son “Sturla mine” (“Sturla minn”). In this context, a seemingly innocent gesture—when Sturla sips whiskey in his hotel room, imagines the translator of his own poems and offers “Cheers to the unknown translator”— gains both prophetic and ironic significance.
While Bragi Ólafsson’s sixth novel has recently been published and now sits among the best-sellers of this year’s Christmas book picks, ‘The Ambassador’ offers the more limited English language reader a chance to be swept away by the Christmas book flood (jólabókflóð) that inundates Iceland every year. In this case, it is perhaps to the reader’s advantage that there is less to wade through in the translation section of new publications. Although ‘The Ambassador’ is among the few options, it is among the best, as well as a healthy alternative to the predominance of crime fiction in translation. To be sure, ‘The Ambassador’ may require the reader to do a little of her own detective work by way of contextualisation, but hardly more than what a little Wikipedia search—that modern-day inheritor of “the association of ideas” theory put into practice—can’t handle.