November 22, 2010 5:19 am

The Ambassador

The Ambassador, by Bragi Ólafsson, translated by Lytton Smith, Open Letter RRP$15.95, 298 pages

 

Everyone in Iceland is either a musician or a poet, observes a character in Bragi Ólafsson’s gentle satire on the literary life. It’s certainly true of this book’s author: as well as being a playwright, poet and (on this evidence, rather good) novelist, Ólafsson is best known as the bassist of Björk’s former band The Sugarcubes.

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The ambassador of the title is Sturla Jón Jónsson, a fiftysomething poet from Reykjavik, who manages to combine acute sensitivity with breathtaking self-absorption. Chosen to represent Iceland at a poetry festival in Lithuania, he is enraged when – in an echo of Gogol’s famous story – his expensive overcoat is stolen from a restaurant. Meanwhile, Sturla is accused of another kind of theft: the wholesale plagiarism of his cousin’s unpublished poems.

A shaggy-dog story that at times reads like a sort of minor-key, Scandinavian rewrite of an English campus novel: charming, funny and strange in equal parts.

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