The Ambassador

Ólafsson’s dark, delightful tale of an alcoholic Icelandic poet representing his country at a poetry festival in Lithuania brims with mordant commentary and beguiling narrative cul-de-sacs. The book begins with one of many nods to Gogol as Sturla Jón Jónsson buys an expensive overcoat that he will promptly lose at the festival. Then the situation worsens: Sturla gets mixed up with a Salomé-inspired striptease gone wrong, is accused of plagiarizing in his latest book, gets harassed by a garlic-breath prostitute, and resorts, in a moment of desperation, to thievery. Ólafsson (The Pets) skillfully fills in Sturla’s dysfunctional family history while building up to the festival, then wastes no time in painting his protagonist into a corner once he gets there. The tension over how and whether Sturla will escape his comical problems is satisfying, as are Ólafsson’s sly observations about literary and Icelandic culture. If the eventual resolution feels too easy, there are enough discordant notes and painfully awkward situations to add depth and angst to this look into the messy calculus of life.