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):Read More...
Totally biased, but I think this is one of our strongest seasons yet, what with Zone, the new Bragi Olafsson novel, the first of a million or so Juan Jose Saer books (one of my absolute favorites! If you can’t wait for our book, check out The Event from Serpent’s Tail—absolutely incredible), and our first poetry title . . . You can download a pdf of the catalog by clicking the link above, but here are links to each of the books, along with their respective copy:
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer. Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina)
It’s October 1960, say, or 1961, in a seaside Argentinian city named Santa Fe, and The Mathematician—wealthy, elegant, educated, dressed from head to toe in white—is just back from a grand tour of Europe. He’s on his way to drop off a press release about the trip to the papers when he runs into Ángel Leto, a relative newcomer to Rosario who does some accounting, but who this morning has decided to wander the town rather than go to work.
One day soon, The Mathematician will disappear into exile after his wife’s assassination, and Leto will vanish into the guerrilla underground, clutching his suicide pill like a talisman. But for now, they settle into a long conversation about the events of Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday—a party neither of them attended.
Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is simultaneously a brilliant comedy about memory, narrative, time, and death and a moving narrative about the lost generations of an Argentina that was perpetually on the verge of collapse.
Zone by Mathias Enard. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France)
Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat who has been working for the French Intelligence Services for fifteen years, is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. He’s carrying a briefcase whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican; the briefcase contains a wealth of information about the violent history of the Zone—the lands of the Mediterranean basin, Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy, that have become Mirkovic’s specialty.
Over the course of a single night, Mirkovic visits the sites of these tragedies in his memory and recalls the damage that his own participation in that violence—as a soldier fighting for Croatia during the Balkan Wars—has wreaked in his own life. Mirkovic hopes that this night will be his last in the Zone, that this journey will expiate his sins, and that he can disappear with Sashka, the only woman he hasn’t abandoned, forever . . .
One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Mathias Énard’s Zone provides an extraordinary and panoramic view of the turmoil that has long deviled the shores of the Mediterranean.
The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Catalonia)
Collected here are thirty-one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most moving and challenging stories, presented in chronological order of their publication from three of Rodoreda’s most beloved short story collections: Twenty-Two Stories, It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories, and My Christina and Other Stories. These stories capture Rodoreda’s full range of expression, from quiet literary realism to fragmentary impressionism to dark symbolism. Few writers have captured so clearly, or explored so deeply, the lives of women who are stuck somewhere between senseless modernity and suffocating tradition—Rodoreda’s “women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty” (Natasha Wimmer).
The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson. Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith. (Iceland)
Sturla Jón Jónsson, the fifty-something building superintendent and sometimes poet, has been invited to a poetry festival in Vilnius, Lithuania, appointed, as he sees it, as the official representative of the people of Iceland to the field of poetry. His latest poetry collection, published on the eve of his trip to Vilnius, is about to cause some controversy in his home country—Sturla is publicly accused of having stolen the poems from his long-dead cousin, Jónas.
Then there’s Sturla’s new overcoat, the first expensive item of clothing he has ever purchased, which causes him no end of trouble. And the article he wrote for a literary journal, which points out the stupidity of literary festivals and declares the end of his career as a poet. Sturla has a lot to deal with, and that’s not counting his estranged wife and their five children, nor the increasingly bizarre experiences and characters he’s forced to confront at the festival in Vilnius . . .
Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador is a quirky novel that’s filled with insightful and wry observations about aging, family, love, and the mysteries of the hazelnut.
Lodgings by Andrzej Sosnowski. Translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff. (Poland)
Lodgings is the first representative selection of Sosnowski’s work available in English. Spanning his entire career, from the publication of Life in Korea in 1992 to his newest poems, this is a book whose approach to language, literature, and the representation of experience is simultaneously resonant and strange—a cocktail party where lowlifes and sophisticates hobnob with French theorists and British glam rockers, unsettling us with the hard accuracy of their pronouncements.
One of the foremost Polish poets of his generation, Andrzej Sosnowski’s work demonstrates a dazzling range of influences and echoes, from Ronald Firbank and Raymond Roussel to John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop. Also an influential editor and critic, he has received most of the literary honors available to poets in Poland, including the prestigious Silesius Prize.
Taking off in just a few minutes for Bulgaria to participate in the translation related part of this year’s Sozopol Fiction Workshop, which is sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing. This seminar brings together English and Bulgarian writers for three days of workshops, guest lectures, and “roundtables on various issues from the lifecycle of the book, including how to work with agents, editors, translators, and publishers.”
It should be rather interesting . . . And assuming we have an internet connection, I should be able to blog about all my adventures. I actually have to fly from Rochester to Atlanta to Paris to Sofia, where I’ll eventually take a bus to Sozopol . . . Given my recent travel record (a night spent in JFK, a night spent in a hotel near JFK, a 5-1/2 hour volcano related delay, a flight that lasted an additional 2-1/2 hours as we rounded Iceland, etc.), this all seems like it’s never going to work.
Actually, it seems like I’m living Bragi Olfasson’s forthcoming novel, The Ambassador, which is about an Icelandic poet who is invited to a poetry conference in a small town in Lithuania. He flies to Vilnius, is supposed to take a bus to this other town, decides to skip it after his overcoat is stolen at a restaurant, drinks a lot, etc. . . .
This should be a lot of fun, and I may even have time to catch up on some things—such as my e-mail. (Seriously, if you’ve emailed me recently—or not so recently—and are awaiting a response, I’m getting there. These trips jack my ability to keep up with certain things. I’m not ignoring you, I’m just working through the tons of messages I’ve been receiving . . .)
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .