"The Ambassador" by Bragi Olafsson [Icelandic Literature]
Since we publish two of his novels, and since we featured his band yesterday, I thought today would be a perfect day to excerpt Bragi Olafsson’s The Ambassador, which is translated by Lytton Smith. (FYI: Lytton is the one responsible for providing me with the bottle of Brennivin featured in my upcoming “Black Death” post. So blame him.) Without a doubt, The Ambassador is the best novel ever written about a Lithuanian poetry conference. Most definitely.
Poet (and building superintendent) Sturla Jón Jónsson, is the Icelandic representative to this Lithuanian poetry conference. Which makes sense—he just has a new collection out that’s getting a lot of praise . . . Well, that is until he goes away and a major newspaper runs a story accusing Sturla of plagiarism. And that’s just the start of Sturla’s troubles. In Lithuania, someone steals his new overcoat, so he decides to swipe someone else’s jacket—which, obviously, doesn’t end up working all that well for him.
Here’s how Karen Russell—author of Swamplandia put it in a recent issue of PEN America:
Bragi Olafsson’s English language debut [Ed. Note: The Pets was his English language debut, but whatever], The Ambassador, is the strange, hilarious, and brilliant story of Sturla Jon Jonsson, a building superintendent who also happens to be a venerated Icelandic poet. He’s on his way to Lithuania to represent his nation at a literary festival, opening the door for all kinds of scathingly funny insights into the “situation of the writer.” It’s a tricky book to paraphrase—boozy, literary Icelandic black comedy? Icelandic picaresque? No “elevator story” exists for it, according to the book’s publisher, the fabulous Open Letter. It’s unlike anything else out there, anda joy to read. Sturla gets into all sorts of jams over the course of this short, weird novel, from being accused of nicking his latest poetry collection from a dead cousin to losing his overcoat, the only piece of clothing with a high thread count that this starving artist has ever owned. Kafkaesque yuks and keen insight are brought to you by the badass genius translator Lytton Smith—one of my favorite poets and author of the acclaimed debut The All-Purpose Magical Tent—and he uses all his creativity and rigor here, as well as his deep knowledge of Icelandic culture. Sturla’s inimitable voice can now infuriate and delight an American crowd.
And Agni just reviewed this, stating:
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.
One other bit about the book before we get to the sample. In The Abassador, everyone who attends this Lithuanian poetry conference receives a copy of The Season of Poetry featuring translated poems from a number of the conference participants. Well, Lytton actually recreated this book, which is available as a $.99 ebook and features “translations” from writers such as Jason Grunebaum, Jesse Ball, and Matthew Zapruder. So, for the price of a John Locke novel, you can get some faux-international poetry! (This actually is a brilliant collection—both the poems themselves and the games surrounding these poems are immensely satisfying.)
At long last, here’s a bit of The Ambassador. This is actually the editorial Sturla Jón Jónsson writes for the newspaper before taking off for the international poetry conference (after the jump):
“Two Hours Away from the City”
by Sturla Jón Jónsson
Poetry lives in all things. That
is the chief argument
The trip scheduled from Vilnius to Druskininkai takes just two hours. The Czech poet Nezval wrote about the five minutes distance from the town but here we are dealing with a longer distance. From Vilnius to Druskininkai, it is a two-hour
trip by coach.
Vilnius? Why talk about Vilnius? And what in heaven’s name is Druskininkai? What does the unintelligible name Druskininkai signify?
Well, I have been invited to an international poetry festival in a little village in Lithuania called Druskininkai, which is southwest of the capital city Vilnius and directly south of the ancient capital city, Kaunas, where the Dalai Lama once went when he visited Vilnius. No other Icelanders have been invited to the festival in Druskininkai; I’ll be traveling alone and I am supposed to show up in this country in mid-October.
It is certainly tempting to state the obvious and say that Druskininkai is an absurd name for a village, even taking into account that the village is in Lithuania, a country where anything goes when it comes to giving names.
But such temptation is too obvious for a poet to give in to it. And no less so when we are discussing a poet who has reached the stage in his art where he believes he has nothing more to accomplish as a poet.
Druskininkai means the same thing as Salzburg in Austria. Although Salzburg isn’t considered a very happening place at the moment, still, it is hardly possible to say that nothing good has come from there.
“I am called Dainius Navakas and I come from Druskininkai.” This doesn’t sound convincing though there is evidence of an individual with the name Dainius Navakas who lives in Druskininkai.
After I received an invitation to the poetry festival, I looked up information about Druskininkai on the Internet and found, among other things, the name Dainius Navakas. From what I understood from the homepage of the town of Druskininkai, this Dainius Navakas works as some kind of information official.
But now to the poetry festival. The last thing I want to do is seem ungrateful towards the people who organized it, but at the same time I have to mention that I was astonished when I saw the first event would be a recital by three American
I discovered this information in the documents about the festival that were sent to me by e-mail. Actually, the three women poets are supposed to read in Vilnius itself, in the cultural center at the American Embassy, and although that will take place before the festival formally starts, I notice on one page of the documents which were sent to me that their reading will signal that the festival has begun.
All this is a reason for even more amazement, when I think about how the international poetry festival in Druskininkai is originally Nordic, certainly not American or Anglo-Saxon.
If I’ve learned anything from my past experiences of poetry festivals of the sort we’re discussing here, then I know that nothing will prevent these three American poets from reading at the opening of the festival. Neither a bomb attack on their embassy in the city, nor unforeseen deaths back home, be that in Wyoming or Nebraska, will prevent them from being at the podium at the designated time.
No doubt it will surprise people that I react to the matter like this, by declaring my opinion that nothing will prevent the American trio from doing what they’re supposed to, yet in reality the plans of the people who devise the program for a festival of this caliber seldom go wrong. I speak from experience in this matter.
For example, I don’t foresee that, instead of these three American women, three male poets from Finland who no-one is expecting to be in Druskininkai in October will suddenly jump up from nowhere. Three very fat and dead drunk Fins with everything showing, in all senses of the phrase.
No. Nuh-uh, as people say out in the country, people who have no idea that a gathering like the Druskininkai gathering exists anywhere in the world, and who wouldn’t give a hoot if they did.
If something unpredictable were to happen at a poetry festival like this, it would be along these lines: a few minutes before a reading, somebody would notice that the texts from one of the foreign participants, which have been translated into Lithuanian like everybody’s else’s poems, are not actually his own poems, but some entirely different pieces which are totally unconnected to poetry.
An obituary about a deceased relative? A letter to a newspaper which the party in question wrote to protest the planned organizational changes to the city center in the town where he lives?
The poet accidentally e-mailed the wrong document overseas, and the translator, who had naturally never read anything by the poet, and so had no sense from reading the article how it ought to sound, hadn’t noticed anything wrong, and so translated the whole caboodle without hesitation, trusting that the continuous and somewhat lumbering text is just one long and rather detailed prose poem.
Lithuanian is a very old language. The oldest in Europe, if Icelandic is not counted. I’ve read works in Lithuanian and heard it spoken on board a ferry to Norway, and I really think it would be exaggerating to describe the language as beautiful in either texture or sound.
I, at least, can’t make it work to lyrical ends. It needs some great changes to become a useful tool in the hands of the poet, at least those poets who have developed any feeling for sound and rhythm.
According to the program of the Druskininkai festival, some domestic poets will be showing off. I can already hear the rattle when all the Antanases and Vytautases begin booming loudly into the microphone in the festival hall.
That will be an unbroken hour of torture and we’ll have to listen to it. And then the reading will continue with the translated poems of the participants, with the proud translators rising up from their chairs and reeling off the obituaries for deceased friends and the newspaper articles about planning matters, and then one will deeply wish, just like the young student Rastignac—when he stood before Monsieur and Madame de Restaud, having dropped old Goriot’s name—that the earth will open up and swallow him.
But let us assume everything goes as it should as far as the translation of the foreigners’ poems is concerned. Let us allow the natives the benefit of doubt in this respect.
There is still, on the other hand, the question of whether one will be able to actually read one’s poetry, even though that is the reason for the trip to Druskininkai.
Three or fours years ago, I was invited to take part in a comparable festival in the city of Liège in Belgium, although that festival was perhaps on a considerably greater scale than the one I will be attending in Lithuania.
Despite the fact that I stayed in Liège for four whole days, and though the organizers were good enough to see to everyone’s needs while we were there, it turned out, when it came down to it, that there wasn’t enough time to read my poems.
In the first place, so many poets had been invited to the festival, from every corner of the world, that there were very few poets left in the countries they had come from; it would have caused serious problems if the invited poets hadn’t returned to
their native countries. And secondly, the program in which I was included stretched so far in excess of the time limit that, when it was time for me, the time set aside for the reading had already run out.
The festival organizers announced the immediate departure of the coach that was going to deliver the participants from the reading hall back to the hotel.
At that very moment I was beginning to get dry in the mouth, out of nervousness at having to read in front of such esteemed people from so many countries.
There was no way, apparently, to make the coach wait. The driver needed to get home. And the question I asked one Belgian poet, a young man who I had talked with earlier, during one of the many midday breaks, was this: “To his home where? Is his home so far away that the organizers of the festival need to worry about him getting there in good time? In good time for what?”
For my part, I’d come all the way from Iceland to read poems in Belgium, and because this Belgian driver, who had been hired to drive me and the other poets home to a hotel after the recital, needed to get home right now and go to sleep, there wasn’t time for me, the next-to-last poet in the program.
Nor for the South African poet, who was last in the program.
It seems the poetic democracy they have in Belgium is like the freedom of speech in the Parliament of the Communist party in Moscow: the Chief Secretary and his comrades from the Party’s Executive Branch Committee reported, in a speech lasting many hours, all the magnificent qualities of the red power and the Party’s mercy, but the people’s delegate to Parliament was only given three minutes to make his own recommendations.
The difference, of course, is that the black South African and I didn’t get a single second to showcase our excellent abilities.
We could just as well have stayed home; he in his faraway Johannesburg (if that’s where he lived) and I in Skúlagata, in my cozy little Reykjavík.
And so I’ve still never read my poems in Belgium. Even though I was sent there for four days for precisely that purpose. The only thing I got for my trouble in making that journey to Liège was a daily meal with the other poets in the assembly hall of the conference center where the festival was being held.
And wine. There was certainly unlimited wine with our food, both during the festival and in the evenings.
The food itself was nothing to complain about, although some poets, at least one from Iraq and another from Cyprus, did have some criticisms, particularly about the relative portions of meat, fish, potatoes, and salads on their plates.
This all begs the question, of course, as to whether something similar, that is, in terms of the amount of time for reading, is in the cards for Lithuania.
“In the cards for Lithuania?” That reminds me of the story of a man whom I met by chance in a restaurant in downtown Reykjavík two or three years ago. He had been invited to Lithuania, but unlike me was he on a business trip (although in a certain sense you could say that my dealings with that country are a little business-like in character).
While I earn my living as a superintendent and a poet, this man works on the other hand for a wealthy firm in Reykjavík, and the hotel which he stayed at in Vilnius, located on the main street in the city center, was, according to his account, the best of the many hotels he’d stayed in.
It was comparable to the best hotels in New York and Paris. There was a roomy Jacuzzi, a thirty-inch flatscreen on the wall facing a California King-size bed, a DVD player, and not just a box of assorted chocolates laying on his pillow on the bed, but
also a little bottle of champagne and a cloth bag containing orange-flavored chocolate.
I can’t help but suspect I’ll be thinking about the magnificent description of this hotel when I step over the threshold to the dormitory, or hostel, or shelter, which is were I assume I’ll be staying in Druskininkai and Vilnius.
Unbelievably, that is in fact the usual situation for invited guests if you make your living as a poet. Even the Faroe Islands, the one nation out of all nations which ought to comport itself well towards Icelanders, is no less apathetic when it comes to dealing with Icelandic artists and literary folk.
A few years ago I went to a kind of “culture week” in Þórshöfn, where poets, visual artists, and musicians from all the Nordic countries and Greenland come together, and it was not until the small welcoming committee greeted me and the other Icelanders at their poky little airport in Þórshöfn that I found out I wouldn’t have a private room at the hotel. I wouldn’t be based at the hotel at all, but instead in a boarding house at the edge of town.
I ended up sharing a room with a Norwegian who had come over from Norway and spoke the absurd children’s language nýnorska, or New Norwegian, and who was purging himself through some kind of detox, letting nothing pass his lips the whole week except lemon-flavored water.
It was, evidently, incomprehensible that this miserable individual should choose exactly this week for his self-centered cleansing ritual. The smell emanating from his mouth every time he opened it (which wasn’t infrequently) was the sourest
halitosis I have ever experienced from anybody.
That we were roommates made other participants at this Faroese poetry farce look at me with compassion for having to share a room with this New-Norwegian phenomenon, but also with ironic glances, which I interpreted as indicating they had
formed an opinion that I, the Icelander, deserved to spend the darkest hours of the day in Þórshöfn in an atmosphere transformed by the cocktail of lemon juice, water, Norwegian exhalations, and unused digestive fluids.
I am not saying for certain that the same thing will happen in Lithuania, but, given how the program is organized for the Friday, with the recital of the American poets, I don’t exactly have high hopes.
It will begin with the farce the American trio have prepared for us. Kelly Francesca, Daniella Goldblum, and Jenny Lipp.
The first day proper of the festival is Saturday. All right, I say. All right. Nothing wrong with that.
But that the first item in the program is called “After Midday with German poet Günther Meierhof” is not only typical but even an inevitable discrimination against poets who speak and write in minor languages; that seems to be a given at festivals
like this, whether they are held in England, Sweden, or Iceland.
This so-called “After Midday” with the German poet (a poet no-one outside of Germany has ever heard of) goes on for two hours, and then, only then, does someone else get a turn.
First up are the domestic poets, and things proceed with them offering some outlandish play, no doubt some sort of “lyrical” play—I can’t understand why people haven’t seen through this phenomenon long ago, since the theater has nothing whatsoever to do with poetry.
There seems, in fact, to be something missing from the program on Saturday: it ends after this “performance” and participants are simply left afterwards in an empty space. There is not even any mention of supper.
The second day starts with the formal registration of participants at something called the Dainava center at 16 Maironio Street.
Why on earth do the people who organize these things assume that we all know where Maironio Street is? Most of us have come to Druskininkai for the first (and last) time in our lives.
But at the end of the registration period (which I don’t expect will be any better; I imagine we’ll get some kind of card with our name on it, which we’re expected to wear hanging on our chests) we suddenly jump into a recital by some poet from
Wales, some totally unknown poet who has decided to go by the name Niphin Bush, absurd as it sounds.
It doesn’t take a powerful imagination to predict that such people are more accurately called drinkers. A poet bearing the same last name as an American president doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously as a poet.
I don’t intend to cast specific aspersions on the job of the American president—haven’t we had enough of that grumbling?—but trying to make a career as a poet who shares a name with George W., Jeb, and George the elder is about as clever as sitting in the driver’s seat of a truck that’s going at full speed only to find the steering wheel is missing.
I perhaps shouldn’t be allowed to make assertions about people I’ve never met. But if anyone is allowed to do this, then I think I should be the one.
Before I went to the poetry festival in Liège, the one I mentioned above, I carefully read the documents about the festival which I’d been sent, and one participant caught my attention: a fifty-something poet from Ireland (exactly the way you’d
describe me, if you changed the “r” in Ireland for a “c”). This person has published an incredible number of poetry books, as well as some books on the art of poetry in general (as if there aren’t enough books about that already).
Although I didn’t have a picture of this person, I immediately knew he had to be a drinker, and I was also sure his sole purpose in visiting Liège was to sample the Belgian strawberry and cherry beer.
Indeed, I had a very vivid image of this person in my mind, long before I met him, and in that image he was sitting at a Belgian beer bar with a huge glass of light-red strawberry beer in front of him, and beside the beer were two or three whisky glasses which he had gulped down between mouthfuls of beer.
And then I met the man: the only thing wrong with my prophetic image was his preference for Irish rather than strawberry beer; he drank Guinness with whisky. But his main purpose in turning up at the poetry festival was, as he himself put it: “One has poetic license to drink more than one usually drinks on a working day at home.”
I don’t know whether I should recount the other items on the program for Sunday. To tell the truth, what most attracted my attention in the program was the midday, coffee, and supper breaks, which could be more frequent, based on a quick glance
at how compressed the poetry program is.
There, at least, you get some nourishment, something you don’t get from all the Nordic drivel which will be poured over us by the bucket-load at the festival.
And barely have I got my head around the term “creative writing” than, between one o’clock and half-past three on Sunday, we’re offered a lesson in this sort of writing.
I am fairly sure the trio of American poets will do really well at that gathering, shouting interjections in the form of pretentious-sounding questions which have no value besides disturbing the moderators of these so-called lessons from their attempt to share their limited knowledge with the simpletons who go in for the creative-writing lark—a group which definitely won’t include me.
And that about covers the major points of the Lithuanian program, which I have here in front of me, except for the Sunday night, when they’ve planned some universal gathering of poets. And, following that, there’s an item in the program with
the embarrassing name “Night of the One Poem.”
Monday, the last official day of the festival, naturally begins with breakfast. Some people won’t exactly be bright-eyed that morning.
Then there is some ridiculous performance planned for the tired, ready to depart participants, some nonsense called “The disagreement between fire, water, air, and earth.”
I’m going to make myself disappear while this torture takes place.
At the end of all this, there’s a festival publicity event to introduce a festival poetry collection which is being published on behalf of the festival.
The only good thing about both the presentation and the publication is that—mixed in with all the stillborn poems by Jespers, Bengts, and Kláuses—you can find my own poems in the collection, the poems of a poet who has turned his back
Actually, the poems will be in the odd Lithuanian language, but nevertheless they will be there, and as far as I’m concerned it will be enough that people know the poems were originally written in the one Nordic language you can definitely describe
as having a somewhat lyrical tone: the Icelandic language.
And then, as a way of concluding this tragicomic presentation, all kinds of reading groups take over the program. We poor devils will be arranged into groups according to some rigid system one of the festival committee members has been devoting months to, and I’m assuming that these groups will perform an autopsy on one of the poems.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up choosing a messy effort by one of the American housewife-poets, or by the Meierhof Phenomenon; it certainly won’t be a poem by that drunkard Bush or by me, who is from the back of beyond.
And finally, when we’ve all been over-stuffed with the art of words, the organizers will reveal to us who is the idiotic winner of the poetry contest they announced on the first day of the festival.
At this moment, I will be asking myself why in the world I accepted the invitation to this strange festival. Especially as I’m already thinking about, eagerly anticipating, the moment I get to take off in the airplane from Vilnius, free from all that crap,
at least until the invite to the next festival arrives.
Nevertheless, I am going to go there in mid-October; not long now.
Indeed, I got my tickets in the mail this morning. Keflavík—Copenhagen—Vilnius and back. The tickets were sealed in a stupid envelope which was so tight a fit that I tore them on one corner when I tried to get them out.
It felt to me like I was playfully tearing banknotes in half. The feeling was painful and tender at the same time.
I imagined some crazy rich rapper in Los Angeles excitedly setting down his gun and beginning to tear dollar bills apart in front of a photographer who has come to visit him.
Why don’t they invite this sort of larger-than-life guy to Lithuania for the festival?
Someone people know. Someone who can compose on the spot and actually has something to say about the situation in the world. Or the situation in South Central.
I can imagine this rapper sitting at the breakfast in Druskininkai, his baseball cap on backwards and thick gold chains dangling into his oatmeal.
The organizer of the festival is standing outside the breakfast room, and he has taken up smoking again.