David Treuer, The Translation of Dr. Apelles,
Graywolf Press, 2006
a secret at the end of David Treuer's new novel, The Translation of
Dr. Apelles, that I'm tempted to give away. In fact, it's hard to
even discuss the book without ruining it for the uninitiated—so
much relies on the final twist. But I'd rather not be a spoilsport, even
at the risk of revealing too little. This is "a love story,"
after all, as the book's subtitle explicitly instructs us (just in case
we missed it, the point is hammered home by not one, not two, but three
epigraphs on love). And love stories, even postmodern ones, tend to turn
out only so many ways.
In this case, the love story is actually
two stories—or at least two. The first concerns the eponymous Dr.
Apelles, a middle-aged, hyper-literate Native American librarian (of sorts)
whose true passion is translating obscure Native American texts written
in dialects familiar to only a handful of learned specialists, such as
himself. Indeed, the novel opens with the discovery of a document "for
which he himself is the only remaining key," the one and only person
capable of deciphering and thus rescuing it from oblivion. "There
are no readers for this translation," Apelles realizes, and the power
of that realization fills him with equal parts thrill and temptation:
"he could, he sees, make that poor document say anything at all and
no one would be the wiser." At the same time, the enigmatic text
triggers a deeper revelation: Dr. Apelles has never truly been in love.
Luckily, a coworker named Campaspe has shown some interest.
Alternating with this storyline is the
narrative of Bimaadiz and Eta, two nineteenth-century Native American
orphans who grow up in the same village, fall in love, and carry on a
quaint but adventure-filled adolescent romance. The implication, of course,
is that here is the aforementioned mystery-document, unearthed and translated
for us by the uniquely capable Dr. Apelles. But as the novel progresses
and the two stories appear to veer away from each other even as they interchange,
it becomes harder to read them as parallels. At times, it's impossible
to say which is the frame story and which is the framed.
If all this sounds a bit more metafictional,
and less romantic, than your typical love story, it's supposed to. Part
of Treuer's project is to parody the romance, the genre of choice for
such popular purveyors of Indian lore as James Fenimore Cooper and other
notable palefaces whose stories have irreparably warped our concept of
Native American narrative and culture. But that's not all Treuer is up
to. If our ideas about Native Americans are shaped in large part by received
texts of suspect reliability, so too are all our ideas about everything.
By way of example, Treuer's novel nods to a number of other texts. The
influence of writers like Borges, Cortazar, and Saramago is readily apparent,
especially in the description of Dr. Apelles' workplace, a vast and bureaucratically
byzantine repository for books that no one reads anymore. Those chapters
dedicated to Dr. Apelles' story are each written in a slightly different
voice—á là Calvino's If on a winter's night a
traveler—and inevitably repeat a slightly different version
of the same scene over and over—á là Queneau's Exercises
The very bookishness of this book is impossible
to escape. More than once, our attention is directed to the material object
in our hands, as opposed to the insubstantial words inside it. In one
scene, even the act of sex is overtly textualized: "[I]t seems to
him that her breasts, as they part and rise, are like the pages of a mysterious
and delicate book. I've been waiting to read you, he whispers...
And what a story it is to read. What a pleasure. Page after page after
If the ideas and techniques here are familiar,
they are not always entirely successful. Or rather, it isn't exactly clear
what Treuer is trying to do with them. While typographical and stylistic
cues help the reader to detect variations in the multiple narrative voices
that relate Dr. Apelles' story, the voices themselves are not always dissimilar
enough from section to section to pull the trick off. Those sections on
Bimaadiz and Eta are guided by a more constant, matter-of-fact, and folkloric
tone, yet the childlike simplicity of their story can begin to seem tiring,
and slowpoke readers like myself are likely to feel their patience tested
while waiting to see where all this is headed.
In the big finale, The Translation
of Dr. Apelles reveals itself to be more interested in story than
love. But despite the book's flaws, it remains of interest to anyone who
appreciates the play and interplay of literary texts and literary tradition—and