With 386 pages (the Icelandic hardcover version, Sendiherrann; 2006), The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson is a massive book. I have nothing against long novels, as long as I see a purpose with each page.
Unfortunately, that was not the case with this book. I say unfortunately because I hoped and expected I would like it, given that Ólafsson’s The Pets was a pleasant surprise.
Not that these two books can necessarily be compared, but what I liked about The Pets is that a seemingly insignificant series of events and uninteresting characters could grab such strong hold of my attention that I was excited to know how they would end up.
The main character of The Ambassador, poet Sturla Jón Jónsson, is not only unsympathetic but also uninteresting. His actions, his thoughts, the conversation he leads and the characters surrounding him did nothing but make me sleepy and had it not been for this column I would have given up on the book somewhere in the first chapters.
I read either to be entertained or enlightened but The Ambassador just bored me. The detailed descriptions of everything from garments to the main character’s five children—who served absolutely no purpose to the plot and appeared to not have any deciding influence on the poet’s personality or actions either—seemed to be nothing but fillers, page after page.
That said, The Ambassador wasn’t a complete disappointment, which I wouldn’t have discovered had I not kept on reading until the very end.
The storyline is a bit fleeting but it goes something like this:
The protagonist, the aforementioned Sturla Jón Jónsson, is a semi-famous poet in Iceland and was invited to represent his country in an international poetry festival in Lithuania.
Everything that happens before his arrival to the festival serves as a lead-up to the main event and is far too long in my opinion, as is much of what happens during his first days in Lithuania—like the poet’s obsession over a stain in the carpet in his hotel room.
However, Sturla Jón’s interaction with some of the other poets at the festival and the ridiculous events that he gets caught up in are quite interesting and are more or less driven by his love for an expensive jacket he bought back in Iceland before his departure.
Ólafsson, no doubt, is a talented writer who can make minor details grow into elements all important to the storyline and turn everyday events into a nerve-wracking plot. Surprisingly, this book ended up being both a crime novel and a love story worthy of attention.
I would like to say that the end justified the means and that after finishing the novel I could see how all those things that bored me made sense in the bigger picture. But that’s not the case, although some aspects of the storyline were certainly important to the overall plot.
What spoils this book is how longwinded it is, how many fillers there are, unnecessarily detailed background information and thorough descriptions of unimportant matters.
It feels as if the author was uncertain about where he wanted to lead the story and instead of cutting it down after having made up his mind, he left everything in.
Maybe literature is taking the same course as the film industry in that long is always better; it’s almost as if a film cannot be taken seriously unless it’s three hours. Telling a good story in a short and concise manner is often a better option and a more difficult one.
I fear that Ólafsson may have opted for the long and winding road of literature, as the title of his new novel, which was published before Christmas in Iceland, is so long that it takes up half of the cover:
Handritid ad kvikmynd Arnar Featherby og Jóns Magnússonar um uppnámid á veitingahúsinu eftir Jenný Alexon (“The Screenplay to the Movie of Örn Featherby and Jón Magnússon about the Event at the Café by Jenný Alexon”).
Judging by the title, it’s a follow-up to The Ambassador as all these characters and the screenplay are mentioned in the book, so I think I’ll pass on it.
I don’t mean to seem too harsh in my critique and, of course, good literature is a matter of personal taste. Parts of the The Ambassador were well worth reading and what is boring to me may be entertaining to others.
But to me, the book’s long-windedness was a deal breaker.
The Ambassador is available in an English translation by Lytton Smith on amazon.com.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir