Friday, December 13, 2013

The Translation of Dr Apelles

The Translation of Dr Apelles / David Treuer
Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, c2006.
256 p.

This book is unique -- it's a story of Native American life and tropes, told in a completely different voice than any other work of Native literature I've read. Treuer is also known for his literary criticism and his suggestion that Native American lit hasn't transcended stereotype yet, so this doesn't come as a surprise. This novel is embedded in a literary tradition, though, and it references many, many other works in the Western canon, as well as showing the influence of writers like Borges or Jose Saramago, for instance.

What you'll discover here is a tale of Dr Apelles, a translator and specialist in Native languages. His day job is at a book warehouse that stores unwanted books, but his passion is his translations. In his off hours, he explores an archive, where he discovers a document "of which he is the only remaining key".

The narrative then moves back and forth between his story and the one he is ostensibly translating -- an historical piece about two young people, Eta and Bimaadiz, adopted from neighbouring tribes. Their story is a fable, a fairy tale, using various bits of Native history and mixing them with fantastical elements. They fall in love against many odds, and while translating, Dr Apelles is realizing that he himself has never really been in love. Fortunately for him, there is a beautiful young woman named Campaspe who works alongside him in his day job and for some inexplicable reason is very attracted to him. They begin a relationship fairly early on in the novel.

Naming is an important part of this book. Apelles was a portrait painter in ancient Greece, perhaps echoing our main character's ability to create a reality, to show us whatever he wants us to see. And Campaspe was the mistress of Alexander the Great, first painted by Apelles and then 'given' to him by Alexander because of the success of the portrait. Her name thus became a symbolic stand-in for "mistress". Which kind of fits here, unfortunately...

But I did find a lot to like in this book -- the bookishness of both aspects of Apelles' life, both work and play; his lustful description of his lovely Campaspe as a book whose pages must all be explored; the idea that much of this story is a translation itself; all leading toward a clever, perspective-shifting ending. Questions of historical veracity, of the reliability of a writer or translator, of the shifting reality of a text that's hard to pin down -- all this combines to provide a wonderful read. And there were some really lovely moments in the book that I greatly enjoyed as well. Here's just one quote to end off with, an image that I found beautiful in its brevity:
When they left the woods, their small shack appeared like a black stamp on the blue envelope of dusk.


  1. Thank you for reminding me about this book! I bought a copy back when it first came out and it still sits unread on my shelf.

    1. I think I might have first heard of this one from you way back when...


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