Bragi Olafsson’s The Ambassador is a saga-like account of a poet, who in his dotage decides to undertake a journey to a far-off poetry festival.
The question that The Ambassador raises expertly is: what does a realistic depiction of a poet look like when they are separated from having a tragic end? Answer: kind of goofy looking and out of place, like watching a parrot eat out of a bird feeder. It’s easier to understand poets when they wear their fate like a winter coat (for a masterly example, take Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and its unstable poet).
The author of The Ambassador, Bragi Olafsson, has done the opposite: he’s taken away all the significantly bad events that could have befallen his poet, and replaced them with temperate, everyday difficulties. He casts his story as—for lack of a better description—a work that could be called electrifyingly boring or ploddingly intriguing.
The novel tells the story of an aging poet/building superintendent, who is called to represent his home country (Iceland) at a poetry festival in Lithuania. Two things come to mind: that he will accomplish this with the aplomb and statesmanship of Ben Franklin living in France or that he will fuck it all up. Interestingly, neither happens. The poet-hero never makes the festival. In fact, he never really finishes any act to its natural conclusion. He commits crimes and indulgences, but they’re all minor, all forgivable. The poet-hero is all misdemeanors and no felony, which is after all, more accurate to life.
Olafsson’s aim is realism, and The Ambassador is a measured and meticulous novel—this is what happens when a maturing poet molts. He doesn’t explode in a whitewash of down feathers; he changes at an even pace like a season. Olafsson, who started as the bassist for The Sugarcubes before turning to poetry then prose, doesn’t have the desire to sting his readers the way you might suspect a discipline-switching enfant terrible to do. Instead, he is all out for a literary novel, an almost academic work—if you’re looking for a rock ethos, you will encounter the patient clarity of a birdwatcher, the everyday life of a toll collector, and a refreshing lack of self-destructive behavior exhibited by his protagonist.
There are events that count as troublesome in the plot: kissing a prostitute, stealing an overcoat, drinking (in moderation!), plagiarism, gambling—but the high point of the poet-hero’s insurrection against the gods is finding a women poetess, who is not only his own age, but lives with her mother. In the end it is the poet-hero’s lustiest and most heartfelt wish to sit next to this woman and her mother and watch a DVD. I like to think that this anti-climax is Olafsson’s way of nodding towards nature and reality and the way they change, which is most often slowly and without tragedy.