From Iceland — The Ambassador An excerpt

The Ambassador An excerpt

Published December 1, 2006

Brief synopsis
Icelandic poet Sturla Jon Jonsson attends an international poetry festival in Lithuania – but this is no ordinary poetry trip. As the poetic ambassador of his country, Sturla Jon shrugs off his official duties, deciding to become the ambassador to his own feelings instead.
In Vilnius he meets a female white-Russian poet by the name of Liliya Boguinskaia, who introduces him to the not-so-poetic aspects of reality.
Part one, Reykjavík, Bankastræti
It was made of particularly hard-wearing material, one hundred per cent cotton, which gave the impression, when touched, of being waxed. And as for the seams – they were guaranteed for life. Because the finish was similar to that of some book jackets, like lamination – “you would know all about that, as a poet” – it was resistant to all moisture, which made it ideal for the climate of this country, or whatever country you cared to name; after all, even when the day greeted you with cloudless skies, you could never be sure that by the time it had ended dust would be the only thing to have fallen on you. The colour, too, was one of its main advantages; it never demanded attention as a colour, but drew it anyway in the form of silent admiration, and – “though of course we shouldn’t let ourselves think that way” – envy. The mere fact of its being made in Italy was a form of insurance that the sum you paid for it would go straight into your own pocket, so to speak. And talking of pockets, this nifty little inside pocket on the right did nothing to detract from the appeal; it was especially fitted there to accommodate a mobile phone. Or a packet of cigarettes, that’s to say if the owner doesn’t use a mobile phone but belongs instead to that select group of people who still insist on ruining their health by smoking. Oh, and it was worth mentioning that in the other inside pocket, intended to hold a wallet, there was a small, dark-blue velvet bag – one of the features that made this particular design so unique: a bag made of velvet – and in this neat little bag, which you closed by pulling a yellow silk cord, there were two spare buttons to use in the unlikely event that one of the original buttons came off and was lost. Of course there wasn’t much risk of that happening, because, as already mentioned, the stitching was guaranteed to last a lifetime.
It was with these words – more or less – that the sales assistant in the gentleman’s outfitters on Bankastræti described the Aquascutum duster coat to Sturla Jón; the coat that Sturla had long ago set his heart on and asked to have reordered for him when it sold out. The assistant had no idea that it was Sturla Jón who had requested the order since Sturla hadn’t spoken to this salesman before; he seemed to be new. So it took him pleasantly by surprise – though perhaps he should have expected it of a man whose job is to pay attention to people’s taste in clothes, and thus to people themselves – that the assistant should recognise him. But of course it was conceivable that one of his colleagues had tipped him off when Sturla came into the shop that this was Sturla Jón, the poet; maybe even adding: the one who published freedom from freedom.
Sturla had first spotted the coat in the shop back in February. The weather had been rather too cold at the time to justify purchasing an unlined duster coat, and he couldn’t have afforded it then anyway. But when he thought of taking another look at the coat in June, when his finances were looking up, the three or four coats that had been there in February had vanished from the rail; they had been sold.
“There was a man in here the other day who I reckon must have tried on every suit in the shop,” said the assistant. Sturla was not sure how to interpret this information. He himself had not tried anything on yet; perhaps he reminded the assistant of this man.
“You might know him,” continued the assistant. “I think he’s a painter or some kind of artist.”
“And did he buy a suit?” asked Sturla.
“I’m in the visual arts line myself,” the assistant chipped in, making it sound as if he didn’t want the news to get out.
Sturla repeated his question.
“None of the suits were modish enough for him,” answered the assistant with a smile. “He couldn’t find any with dried mustard on the lapels.”
For a moment Sturla reflected how unusual it was to hear a man as young as the one in front of him use the word modish.
“He had a crusty old stain on the jacket he was wearing,” continued the latter, and when he added that the man had an Adolf Hitler moustache and was wearing a yellow shirt, though one couldn’t immediately tell whether the colour was original or had been acquired over time, Sturla thought it had probably been N. Pietur, the artist and improvisational composer, an old friend of his father’s, and he wondered if it was appropriate for an assistant in a shop such as this to gossip about other customers. When the assistant added that of course it wasn’t just anyone who bought “expensive, quality apparel like this”, as he put it – meaning the apparel stocked by the shop – Sturla felt convinced that if anyone had the right to express an opinion to complete strangers about the delicate process involved in the relations between the one who is offering the goods and the one who is faced with the choice of choosing or rejecting, it should be the customer, not the salesman. He felt it was uncalled for of the young assistant to make conversation with a prospective buyer about his experience of the shop’s other customers, even if the person in question had put him to considerable trouble without actually buying anything – and perhaps most of all for that reason.
Yet despite his thoughtlessness, the assistant was right in saying that of course not everyone could afford to purchase the clothing stocked by the shop, least of all the garment that Sturla had his eye on. Because it was safe to say that these English coats, made in Italy, were expensive, fiendishly expensive. But Sturla Jón, who did not as a rule spend much money on clothes for himself, had at some point many years ago seen a garment like this, a cross between a duster coat and mackintosh, and permitted himself the thought that perhaps he should go a little against the grain and his clothes-buying habits, and set himself the goal of acquiring such an overcoat, almost regardless of cost; allowing himself for once to spend money on a sartorial luxury, something he knew would give him more pleasure to wear than any of his other clothes that had cost not a penny more than necessary.
As Sturla announced that he would take the coat, he realised he had a smile on his face, an innocent smile that was of course nothing wrong in itself, but he was afraid that to other people it might look as if he were irrepressibly proud of himself, like a child or teenager who is about to have his greatest dream come true. “I’ll take it,” he said decisively, trying to wipe the smile off his face.
The assistant nodded solemnly, as if he himself had come to an important decision, and said:
“Good choice.”
Sturla misheard this as “Gotcha”, and stared at the assistant in mild surprise as the man folded the garment. It made a crackling noise, not unlike thick paper, due to the stiffness of the cotton.
“Might there be anything else?” was the assistant’s reaction to the questioning look in Sturla’s eyes.
“No, thank you,” replied Sturla.
“Right you are,” said the assistant, and they went over to the cash register which, unlike in most shops, was located in the middle of the room, by a square pillar. On a table beside the cash desk stood a shiny coffee machine – from the same country as the coat – and an artistic arrangement of white coffee cups.
“Do have an espresso while we’re processing the transaction,” invited the assistant, unfolding the coat in order to fold it up again.
Sturla placed one of the white cups under the nozzle where he knew the coffee was supposed to spurt out and fumbled at the machine until the salesman came to his rescue by pressing a small button, the same colour as the machine, marked with the picture of a coffee cup. While the coffee was brewing, Sturla took out his wallet and counted out thirteen five-thousand kronur notes.
“We don’t often see that much cash,” said the man, and Sturla answered by asking if there was a discount for a down payment.
“Not if you pay in cash. But there’s a five per cent discount if you pay by plastic.” The assistant took the notes from Sturla’s hand, laying the coat on the table beside the coffee cups. He licked his thumb several times while counting the notes, and was forced to start over when his attention was suddenly distracted by Sturla taking off his anorak and smoothing out the coat in order to slip it on. He put the notes away in the cash register and smilingly watched the new customer’s clumsy attempts to struggle into the coat. Then he handed Sturla a bag branded with the shop’s name in which to place his anorak – a bag so beautifully produced that Sturla was momentarily afraid he would have to pay for it; it was a rich brown colour, made of thick, waxed paper, with a finish not unlike that of the coat and a handle of orange cord.
While Sturla was stuffing his anorak into the bag, the assistant was called away by a colleague; someone was needed to serve a young couple whom Sturla had noticed enter the shop, a well-known theatrical pair of whom he had recently heard his father’s friend, Örn Featherby, talk in rather slighting terms. It had been in connection with a play that either she, the wife, or he, the husband, had sold to one of the two big professional theatre companies in town. While Sturla was drinking his espresso he watched the couple and the assistant out of the corner of his eye; they all seemed to know one another and had immediately launched into a discussion of something that made them all laugh. Judging by the husband’s gesticulations the subject of the conversation was probably some project the couple were currently involved in. Sturla Jón glanced around, then sneaked his hand into the white bowl containing light-brown, cylindrical paper packets of sugar and fished out several. He examined them in his open palm, counted them, then slipped them into one of his side pockets.
It had begun to rain when he left the shop. Cold rain, one level up from sleet. Sturla buttoned up the coat and reflected on the things the sales assistant had come out with in connection with the garment and its prospective buyer; he, that is to say the buyer, Sturla Jón, did not use a mobile phone but smoked all the more for that. As if to demonstrate to passers-by that he was precisely the type who didn’t care to be hassled by phones ringing in the open air but instead underlined his independence by allowing himself the forbidden pleasure of smoking, he stopped on the pavement in Bankastræti after leaving the shop, drew a packet of Royale from his breast pocket, tapped out a cigarette and then pushed the packet back into the little inside pocket after lighting the cigarette – the pocket was so tight that it only just fitted.
About the author
Bragi Olafsson has long been established as one of Iceland´s greatest authors and poets. When he published his first volume of poetry in 1986, he struck a very particular note, which has since evolved and deepened into that unmmistakable voice that is his own. He has also inadvertently gained quite a reputation for himself as a playwright, and his play Belgian Congo ran at the City Theatre for almost 2 years and enjoyed great popularity. His novels Time Off (1999), The Pets (2001) and Party Games (2004) are undoubtedly among the most original and remarkable Icelandic novels of recent years

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