Look at the Hazelnuts!
by Erin Gilbert
The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson, translated by Lytton Smith. 298 pgs. Open Letter Books, 2010. $15.95.
I discovered The Ambassador on my father’s dining room table, where he had tossed it down among the matchbooks, flashlights of different sizes, keys, batteries, spools of wire, a digital voltmeter, and lists written with a sharpie in his meticulous all-caps draftsman’s hand. His handwriting matches the volume of his speech; as a marine electrician who has spent decades working in shipyards, electric shops, and engine rooms, he has acquired the habit of shouting everything, even answers to my questions about what he’s been reading. I expect to see crime novels—thrillers with garish neo-noir covers, usually ones that espouse a dim view of humanity spiced with mild Marxism—among the tools strewn across his table, rather than understated Icelandic ruminations on contemporary poetry and plagiarism by authors like Bragi Ólafsson.
My father told me, loudly, that he got Ólafsson’s book from the library—he was intrigued by the opening description of a raincoat. When he got the book home and found that the description continued for several pages, he abandoned it on his table amidst the debris of other unfinished projects. Ólafsson is a jack-of-all-arts—he’s enjoyed success as a poet, musician, translator of Paul Auster, and lately as a novelist. Lytton Smith (whose most recent book of poetry, The All-Purpose Magical Tent won the Nightbooks Poetry Prize) has proven his sensitivity as a translator by smuggling Ólafsson’s terse humor into English. He appears to get the jokes, and even to gently augment them: the novel is preceded by a poem about translation by a fictional Belarusian poet who appears later in the novel, Liliya Boguinskaya, translated into Icelandic by Sturla Jón Jónsson, the protagonist, after a translation into English by another fictional poet, Dora Mistral. The same poem appears in English on the next page, this time translated by Smith, following Sturla’s Icelandic translation from English, from the original Belarusian. The poem, which takes translation as its subject, was what first intrigued me and made the book seem out of place on the table.
Despite Ólafsson’s sophisticated playfulness The Ambassador doesn’t dazzle—its charm is of a more stolid variety. Like the expensive Aquascutum coat that Sturla spends the first several pages examining and then purchasing—a fine raincoat with a hidden pocket containing a small blue velvet pouch that holds two buttons—the novel’s quotidian material belies the ingenuity that went into its construction, and the unexpected delights concealed therein.
My father would say that he appreciates unexpectedness in a novel, but he would be mistaken. He likes thrillers not because of the information they withhold but because of the airtight contract that they uphold—a promise that the reader’s expectations will be met and the victim or criminal’s true identity revealed. At work, he takes pride in making educated guesses, then proving those guesses correct. He wants the same satisfaction from fiction. He likes to feel that he was right all along—about the electricity, about the crime, and about the baseness of humanity.
Several pages past the place where my father gave up, I found Sturla lingering in the store, wearing his new coat, and stuffing his pockets with the little sugar packets he finds near the fancy complimentary espresso machine. His sneaky sweet tooth reminded me of Bjartur of Summerhouses, the hero of Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness’s novel Independent People . When Sturla stops at his own father Jón Jónnson’s apartment, however, I dismissed the resemblance to Bjartur as mere coincidence. Sturla’s true likeness was to another proud purchaser of a fine literary overcoat. Even the repetition—or doubling—in Sturla’s name and patronymic, Jón Jónsson, mirrors Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich. “‘When were Gogol’s Petersburg stories published?’ Sturla asks his father, as he takes his overcoat from the back of the chair in the kitchen and strokes the surface to see whether it has dried.” The plot of The Ambassador follows the same arc as The Overcoat, with a poetry festival in Lithuania, rather than a party in St. Petersburg, drawing the hero away from home; and although the death that results from the theft of the overcoat is figurative in Sturla’s case, he too is driven to steal a replacement in order to restore his dignity and sense of self.
Indeed, the pockets of this novel are crammed with references to Russian, French, and Icelandic literature, as well as to popular films and music. These references are sometimes overt: “Would the money that had found its way to Sturla be enough for him to buy something equivalent to the affections of Goriot’s pretentious daughter?”, and sometimes subtle: Sturla’s placid ex-wife, now married to a grocer and living in the country, has the same name—Hulda—as an Icelandic poet and contemporary of Laxness. Hulda-the-poet wrote a cheerful refutation of what she saw as a needlessly grim portrayal of rural ninteenth–century poverty in Laxness’s Independent People—the coincidences in Ólafsson’s work are never accidental.
Sitting at his father’s table, discussing a book of poetry he has just published and fiddling with the matches he finds there, Sturla imagines a lack of interest on his father’s part in his recent decision to quit writing poetry. He compares himself to Mikhail Bulgakov’s young poet Bezdomny in the novel The Master and Margarita, concluding that his decision wouldn’t affect his father because Sturla “was not a character in a novel by a Russian writer; he is not even a character in a novel.” Before leaving he borrows an Iranian movie about a suicide that his father has taken out from the library. His father admonishes him to return the movie before leaving for Lithuania the following day. (Indeed, Sturla never returns the movie to his father, but my own father was even warier than his, so I had to get my own copy of The Ambassador.)
Brand names and pop-culture references in literature have become de riguer. They are accepted with the same complacency that once privileged high culture. Instead of filling his pages with the detritus of consumer culture, Ólafsson neither eschews nor elevates the flood of popular references wrought by hypercapitalism. On an afternoon walk through the streets of the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, Sturla recalls Miroslav Holub’s proposal that poetry is found in everything (“a fact that is also the chief argument against poetry,” in Sturla’s opinion) as naturally as he recognizes that a busker is playing Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind” on a bass guitar. In Ólafsson’s work poetry and pop songs aren’t mutually exclusive—after walking past the same busker a few days later another song “chimes in Sturla’s head,” not because the man had played it, but because it connected to the song “Mandolin Wind,” which he had played outside the restaurant three days earlier. Pop tunes and fragments of poetry mingle equally in Sturla’s head, supplying him with a rich system of associations.
Allusions, influences, signs and symbols all proliferate in The Ambassador—even the title can be read as a reference to the government post held by Sturla’s grandfather, or to Sturla’s assessment of the role he is supposed to play as an Icelandic poet attending a literary festival in a foreign country, or to the name of the hotel where he stays in Lithuania . Sturla takes note of these coincidences and interprets them freely; in addition to comparing himself and his experiences to the characters and circumstances he has read about, he is keenly sensitive to portents and omens, making everything he sees subject to translation. After buying his coat he notices a sign that reads “Stella” near the bank where he worked as a young man. He wonders if he noticed the sign at the time, and recalls that Stella was the name of the young woman who worked at the telex machine next to him. His mother shows him a picture of himself and his cousin Jonas when they were boys, pointing out that the nanny standing behind the swing-set where Jonas is swinging eventually killed herself—a photographic foreshadowing of Jonas’s own suicide. Sturla is thrilled to find a hazelnut on the sidewalk at the airport, which he immediately deems lucky and deposits in the secret pocket of his coat, next to the spare buttons. He is preoccupied with an ominous stain on the carpet in his hotel room. As allusions and images are repeated and Sturla re-interprets them they echo and refract, bringing a Pynchonesque logic of patterns to a plot that meanders at best.
Sturla’s coat is stolen while he is distracted by a phone call from his father. This theft parallels the more violent mugging of Akaky in The Overcoat, but the reason for the call soon brings to mind the plight of Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double. Vladimir Nabokov—a lover of doubles if ever there was one—claimed The Double was a parody of The Overcoat. (And isn’t every double a parody of the original?) Sturla has been plagued by subtle doubling since the beginning of the novel, when an article in the newspaper about his new book of poetry was accompanied by a photo of another Sturla Jónnson, a well known “farmer and politician.” The doubling, and ensuing trouble, only get worse.
Sturla’s father has called to warn him that a newspaper in Iceland has begun publishing a series of articles accusing Sturla of plagiarism, theft, and fraud. They say he has published the poems of his cousin, Jonas Hallmundsson—the cousin from the photograph—under his own name. His agitation about the disappearance of his coat compounds his reaction to the news from his father—but it is not Sturla himself who is Jonas’s double, it is his poetry. And although his poems are copied from his cousin’s drafts, the minor but essential changes that Sturla has made mean that his poems supersede Jonas’s own work. Sturla’s curatorial impulses and shrewd editing turn his cousin into the double, the imitator, the corrupted and incomplete version. Jonas himself had been prone to parodying the work of poets he disliked, swiping their style and even whole lines, and in both poetry and speech quoting obsessively from the Icelandic singer Megas, who was in turn inspired by Elvis and Bob Dylan.
Without his coat Sturla is as weak as the government clerk Akaky, but rather than succumbing to illness and taking to his bed, he confines himself to his hotel room and drinks. He would like to participate in the festival alongside Liliya Boguinskaya, a Belarusian poet who has translated one of his poems, as he has translated one of hers (the one that Smith gamely re-translated into English), but he can’t do anything without his coat. Like Akaky’s ghost, Sturla steals a replacement, and like the ghost he vanishes soon afterward, fleeing to a room in a boarding house where he holes up with a Danish thriller he bought in the airport. Ólafsson allows the plot to lag rather than forcing Sturla to suffer the expediencies of a thriller. The ensuing pause heightens the metafictional component of the novel that began with Sturla’s protestations that he is not a character in a novel; now, he’s a character doing exactly what the reader is doing—reading. My father would have no patience with such constructions and would hate to find a protagonist stopping to read near the climax of a novel.
Sturla finishes his book and “promises himself that this is the last thriller he will read; from now on, he will write them. He wants to show the reader of this very book, a book he’s already beginning to forget, that thrillers don’t need robbery or murder to hold your attention. They just need some uncertainty about whether or not the main character will make his Big Decision.” In Sturla’s case, the decision he needs to make is whether or not he will return to Iceland. I asked my father if he would read a thriller like the one Sturla envisions. He said the Big Decision would have to involve some dire consequences. “Would someone die?” he shouted. I had to concede that death was unlikely, even though Sturla spends three hours remembering events from his life, “the activity that occupies anyone who is facing certain death.” Sturla’s death is metaphorical, and although it’s not clear that he will ever return to his home in Iceland, it’s still not the kind of ending that would satisfy my father.
Sturla is neither charismatic nor young. He steals sugar, his cousin’s poems, and another man’s coat. Aside from his interest in literature, he is mostly concerned with minutiae: the whereabouts of his raincoat and his next drink, the sarcasm of his father, the stain on his carpet, and the hazelnut in his pocket. But Ólafsson implies that the poetry in all things comes not from a dazzling beauty, but from the unexpected connections one can make between disparate experiences, images, and ideas. The experiences, images, and ideas alone are meaningless without the connections that Ólafsson forges , connections that are emphasized when Sturla deciphers them. Sturla models what a good reader should do when he assumes that nothing is mere coincidence—anything might come in handy for the construction of meaning.
And this is something my father might appreciate, with his love of ingeniousness and practical elegance. The bricolage on his table speaks to the high value he places on utilitarian objects—he prizes ingenuity and wastes no time on dazzle. The Ambassador belongs on my father’s table, as surely as the hazelnut did in Sturla’s overcoat pocket.
While making routine repairs to an old ferryboat a few years ago, my father was delighted to find some of the original parts from the 1920’s intact and in good working order. The boat had been refitted, but below deck some of the machinery was the same. He was impressed by the fine workmanship that allowed those parts to last for almost a century. When I find mechanisms from Gogol and Laxness at work in a contemporary novel, I feel the same delight. The age of these allusions, these recycled experiences, images, and ideas, is not what I enjoy: I learned to read at my father’s table, and like him I appreciate the fine workmanship and elegant connections that result in a functioning whole.
Novels are increasingly categorized as products—an apt classification in an age when product placement is as prevalent in novels as it once was in sitcoms. But literature isn’t supposed to be like that. Authors needn’t become figurative dealers in antiquities, but they shouldn’t be shopping mall shills either. Ólafsson works like Sturla or my father, gathering whatever is handy and valuing the old and new alike for their functionality. If Woody Guthrie’s guitar was a “machine that kills fascists,” then at its best literature is a machine for making meaning. Meaning is like electricity; it can flow and jump and shock. A good novel is not valuable because it is a product, a thing called a novel—it is valuable because of the meaning that it generates.
Ólafsson has connected up all of his odds and ends in order to craft a fine literary machine. The intricacy and accuracy of the connections he has made are a joy to behold. He makes use of both The Overcoat and the overcoat. He juxtaposes translation, mistranslation, and misunderstanding at the personal level with the elevated meaning or understanding that readers draw from books. He connects and reconnects those circuits until his meaning propels us toward a deeper understanding of what Sturla calls “the slipshod material the self is made from, how that material doesn’t last a lifetime.” On a bus in Lithuania Sturla “remembers a quotation he noted down in his black notebook shortly before leaving Iceland, a quotation he’d come across by chance.” The words he copied down were originally written by the American poet Donald Davie, but Sturla imagines that he might just as easily have come up with the words himself: “New sides of the poet who bears my name; all the other people who are no less interesting.” Passages like these are charged with Ólafsson’s fine workmanship, which transmits a current from Davie’s commentary on his poem, The Forests of Lithuania, to Sturla’s expectations of a pending bus ride through Lithuania, by way of double implications about literary doubling (Davie and his double, Davie-the-poet; and Sturla-the-poet).
When we read as consumers we are consuming a product; but reading a novel like The Ambassador requires us to look at literature the way my father looks at ferries—to see an ingeniously designed, carefully constructed assemblage of parts, an assemblage that is good and valuable because it functions so well. Ólafsson’s novel has no flashy packaging—the main characters are devoid of youth, beauty, and conventional charm, the pacing is slow, and the plot wanders—but he has assembled these homely and mismatched materials into an exquisitely crafted novel that is gratifying to see at work.
Erin Gilbert holds an MFA from Bennington College, teaches at Green River Community College, and is at work on her first novel. (7/2011)