David Treuer, The Translation of Dr. Apelles, Graywolf Press, 2006

[Review Guidelines]

There's 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 in Style.
      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 page."
      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 surprises. [AW]