The Ambassador

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The ambassador in question is Sturla Jon Jonsson, a 52-year-old Icelandic janitor, poet, divorced father of five and self-confessed alcoholic who has been invited to take part in a poetry

festival in Lithuania. Being the kind of sardonic, contrarian person he is, Sturla decides to write a piece about the festival even before he sets foot there, predicting that "there 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 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."

Despite harboring such irreverent thoughts, Sturla also likes to think of himself as a kind of ambassador, proudly representing Iceland abroad just as a diplomat might. At the same time, he's not above stealing an overcoat in a Vilnius restaurant, to replace the one he lost to a thief.

Sturla is a classic anti-hero: a rebel, a pilferer and even a possible plagiarist. But he's also brutally honest with himself and others, as evidenced by this insight: "When irony becomes someone's habitual way of expressing themselves, then they are quick to lose sight of how uniform the stance has become--and how tiring."

Sturla's better qualities attract the attention of his Lithuanian translator, Liliya, a "dark-haired, striking woman in her forties." She not only likes Sturla's poems but Sturla himself; consequently the novel goes from being a study in alienation to an unexpected but touching love story.

THE AMBASSADOR continually surprises, manages to stay one quirky step ahead of the reader. (Open Letter, $15.96 ppbk., translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith).