Bragi Ólafsson: The Ambassador

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Bragi Ólafsson The Ambassador
  • Название:
    The Ambassador
  • Автор:
  • Издательство:
    Open Letter
  • Жанр:
    Современная проза / на английском языке
  • Год:
    2010
  • Язык:
    Английский
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    3 / 5
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The Ambassador: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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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. .

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Bragi Ólafsson


The Ambassador

This book is dedicated to the memory of my father, Ólafur Stefánsson.

. .

. .

. .

. .

og við leitum uppi tungu-

mál hvort annars

til að týnast í orðunum

til að þýða hvort annað.

. .

. .

. .

. .

Á leið sinni af trjánum

niður á kalt yfirborð haustsins

eru laufin jafn lengi og það tekur okkur fólkið

að taka hina stóru ákvörðun.

Þegar við svo setjumst hvort við annars hlið

og speglumst í djúpi dimmunnar á barnum

munum við hvorugt hvaða orð við völdum

— hvað þau þýddu á tungumáli hins.

(From a poem by Liliya Boguinskaia, “Pilies-stræti” (Pilies Gatvé), in an Icelandic translation by Sturla Jón Jónsson, after an English translation by Dora Mistral.)

. .

. .

. .

. .

and we search for the tongue

of each other’s people

to get lost in the words

to translate one another.

. .

. .

. .

. .

On their way from the trees

down to the cold autumn ground

the leaves take as long as we people

take to reach the big decision.

When we sit down next to each other

and reflect in the deep darkness at the bar

neither remembers the words we chose

— what they meant in each other’s tongues.

(From a poem by Liliya Boguinskaia, “Pilies-stræti” (Pilies Gatvé), in an English translation by Lytton Smith, after an Icelandic translation by Sturla Jón Jónsson following an English translation by Dora Mistral.)

PART ONE. REYKJAVÍK

BANKASTRÆTI

It is made from particularly durable material, 100 % cotton yet feels waxy to the touch. And the seams will last a lifetime. The exterior is like a laminated dust jacket—“something you’ll appreciate, being a poet”—which makes the item totally waterproof, the perfect design for the weather in this country, or, to put it more accurately, any country where you can’t take the weather for granted. Even when a day begins without a cloud in the sky, you can’t guarantee that dust and dirt are the only things that’ll have fallen on you by the time night comes. The color, too, is a key attraction: it doesn’t garishly call attention to itself yet is likely to invite quiet admiration, even perhaps—“though of course one shouldn’t think such thoughts”—envy. The fact that it was made in Italy is insurance against the price one would have to pay for it, a price that’d clean out your pockets, as the saying goes.

And, on the subject of pockets, one of the nifty little inside pockets is made-to-measure for a cell phone. Or for a cigarette packet, if perhaps the owner doesn’t use a cell phone and is instead one of those few stubborn people out of every hundred who smokes, who don’t care about smoking’s effect on their health. The other inside pocket is also worth mentioning: small, designed perhaps for a wallet, it contains a small, dark blue, velvet bag (that’s one of the things that makes this item unique, a bag made from velvet) and in this charming little bag, which you draw closed with a yellow silk cord, are two spare buttons, for the unlikely event that the owner managed to lose the originals and had to replace them. But there’s little danger of that happening, since the stitching is, as was mentioned earlier, guaranteed to last a lifetime.

With these words — or something along these lines — the salesperson in the coat department of the men’s clothing store on Bankastræti describes the English-style Aquascutum overcoat to Sturla Jón. Sturla had decided to buy this coat a long time ago; he’d even re-ordered it after it sold out. The sales attendant has no idea Sturla Jón had made the order — Sturla hadn’t spoken to this employee, who seems to be new, before. So it takes Sturla pleasantly by surprise that the sales attendant recognizes him, though perhaps Sturla should have expected that a person whose job involves paying close attention to clothes might also pay close attention to the people wearing those clothes. On the other hand, it’s possible another employee had pointed out, when Sturla entered the store, that this was Sturla Jón the poet, maybe adding: you know, the one who published that book, free from freedom.

Sturla had first set eyes on the overcoat in the store back in February. At that time it had been too bitterly cold and stormy for him to justify buying an unlined overcoat, even if he could have afforded it. And when he remembered to take another look at the overcoat later, in June, when there was a marked difference in his financial outlook, the three or four coats that were there before had disappeared from their hangers; they’d all been sold.

“There was a guy in here the other day who must have tried on every single suit in the shop,” the sales attendant is saying. Sturla isn’t sure how to react to this information. “Perhaps you know him,” continues the man. “I think he’s a painter, or some sort of artist.”

“Did he buy anything?” Sturla asks.

“I’m an artist myself, as it happens,” the sales attendant adds, doing his best to sound nonchalant. Sturla repeats the question.

“He couldn’t find anything that suited his style,” answers the sales attendant, smiling. “We don’t have anything in stock that comes with dried mustard on the lapels.”

Sturla is surprised to hear a young man like the one standing in front of him use a word like lapels.

“The jacket he was wearing had a crusty old stain on it,” the sales attendant offers by way of further explanation. When he describes how the customer’s mustache was like Adolf Hitler’s and adds that it had been difficult at first to tell whether the yellow of the customer’s shirt was the original color or a color the shirt had acquired over time, Sturla is fairly certain that the customer was N. Pietur, the visual artist and composer, an old friend of his father. He begins to wonder whether it is appropriate for a sales attendant in a store of this caliber to gossip about other customers. When the attendant adds that, naturally, it isn’t just anyone who buys “such expensive and elegant clothes,” referring to the range of clothes in the store, Sturla is convinced that if anyone should be allowed to sound-off to a complete stranger about the delicate relationship between employee and customer, in which one person offers another merchandise and that other person has to accept or reject those items, then it should be the customer, not the salesman. Sturla reckons it isn’t a great idea for this young employee to be talking to a potential customer about interactions he’d had with a different customer, even if — or precisely because — the former customer hadn’t bought anything, despite having asked the salesman to go to a lot of trouble.

His thoughtlessness notwithstanding, the salesman was right to suggest not everyone could afford the clothing this store sells, especially the item Sturla has his eye on. You’d have to say this Italian-made, English-style overcoat is expensive or, more accurately, over-expensive. But many years ago Sturla Jón, who made it a rule not to spend much money on clothes, had seen a coat like this, somewhere between a mackintosh and a trench coat, and it had occurred to him that, just this once, he should break his usual clothes-shopping habits. So he’d set himself the goal of acquiring the overcoat, almost regardless of the price: the goal of allowing himself, this one time, to buy something expensive, something he knew would afford him more pleasure to wear than the other clothes he owned, clothes which cost no more than they had to.

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