The Translation of Dr. Apelles

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Overview

A daring new novel that "may be David Treuer's best book" (Charles Baxter)

He realizes he has discovered a document that could change his life forever.

Dr Apelles, Native American translator of Native American texts, lives a diligent existence. He works at a library and, in his free time, works on his translations. Without his realizing it, his world has become small. One day he stumbles across an ancient manuscript only he can translate. What ...

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The Translation of Dr Apelles: A Love Story

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Overview

A daring new novel that "may be David Treuer's best book" (Charles Baxter)

He realizes he has discovered a document that could change his life forever.

Dr Apelles, Native American translator of Native American texts, lives a diligent existence. He works at a library and, in his free time, works on his translations. Without his realizing it, his world has become small. One day he stumbles across an ancient manuscript only he can translate. What begins as a startling discovery quickly becomes a vital quest—not only to translate the document but to find love. Through the riddle of Dr Apelles's heart, The Translation of Dr Apelles explores the boundaries of human emotion, charts the power of the language to both imprison and liberate, and maps the true dimensions of the Native American experience. As Dr Apelles's quest nears its surprising conclusion, the novel asks the reader to speculate on whose power is greater: The imaginer or the imagined? The lover or the beloved?

In this brilliant mystery of letters in the tradition of Calvino, Borges, and Saramago, David Treuer excavates the persistent myths that belittle the contemporary Native American experience and lays bare the terrible power of the imagination.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[David Treuer] is mounting a challenge to the whole idea of Indian identity as depicted by both Native and white writers.”—New York Times

“In David Treuer’s deeply crafty, shape-shifting third novel, The Translation of Dr Apelles he echoes Virgil….He seems to want to do for Native American culture and literature what James Joyce did for the Irish: haul it into the mainstream of Western culture through sheer nerve and verve.”—Washington Post Book World

 

“Treuer’s edgy romance celebrates our love for each other, love for the earth and love of story, the way we make sense of life in all its wildness.”—Los Angeles Times

“[The Translation of Dr Apelles is] a novel that is so intellectually rigorous and emotionally stirring, we’ve already told everyone who will listen to read it. And now, we’re telling you.”—Time Out Chicago

“A myriad of false documents, questionable authorships, stalled sexual encounters, and narrative disjunctions, Dr. Apelles is not to be mistaken, like the books that take the most heat in Treuer’s essays, for an anthropological project. To the contrary, Treuer pushes the metatextual games of writers like J.M. Coetzee and A.S. Byatt past the point of parody.”—Village Voice

 

"Treuer is truly an original voice."—The San Francisco Chronicle

Publishers Weekly
The intertwining of two love stories results in a strangely compelling take on matters of the heart in Treuer's third novel (after The Hiawatha). Dr. Apelles, a Native American who translates Native American texts, works as a book classifier for RECAP (Research Collections and Preservations), a "prison for books" located near an unnamed American city. While at the local public library, Dr. Apelles finds a manuscript that he begins translating. The story-within-a-story is of Bimaadiz and Eta, sole surviving infants of separate villages wiped out by a devastating winter. Discovered by different men from the same tribe, the children are adopted by their saviors, reared together as friends and eventually fall in love. Dr. Apelles, while translating the story, realizes his life is unfulfilling, so he begins a love affair with a fellow book classifier, Campaspe, that parallels Bimaadiz's and Eta's. Treuer obscures time and place in both storylines, and though neither the plots nor characters are remarkable, the author's beautiful prose Flaubert in some places, Chekhov in others grabs and holds attention so well that even the narrative contrivances and unlikely coincidences don't diminish the pleasurable reading experience. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Dr. Apelles, a middle-aged Native American scholar, is translating a captivating Native American myth about a young man and a young woman, both orphaned as babies and raised in a town on the edge of the frontier in the northern Midwest. As they grow up, Bimaadiz and Eta fall in love, and the myth traces their gradual coming together. There are daring rescues, passionate love scenes, pastoral interludes, and murderous rivalries. Dr. Apelles himself is a shy introspective man who realizes the shortcomings of his own life as he reads the myth. Working at a library book storage facility called RECAP, described in Orwellian terms by the author, he gradually begins a relationship with a beautiful younger coworker named Campaspe. As the young Bimaadiz and Eta move toward consummating their love at a wedding feast and tribal gathering, the translation itself, both literally and figuratively, becomes a focal point that threatens the relationship of the doctor and Campaspe. While the original myth is told in a straightforward manner, the sections concerning the doctor's life shift perspectives in a dreamlike style. The power of imagination, love, and the written word come across in this engaging tale. Recommended for fiction collections. Jim Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555974510
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 8/22/2006
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.51 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

DAVID TREUER is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He is the award-winning author of two previous novels, Little and The Hiawatha. He teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Minnesota.

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Read an Excerpt

DR. APELLES
1. From an early age, from the time Bimaadiz was fi ve or six, upon watching the men prepare to hunt, he would set up a piteous wail until Jiigibiig - not without some embarrassment - fi tted him with his own set of snowshoes made just for him and told him to follow along. Once in the bush he quieted down and never once scared the game by making noise and never once ruined the hunt by urinating when the wind might blow the scent toward the game. He was happy only when he was in the woods - and so, since Jiigibiig and Zhookaagiizhigookwe only wanted Bimaadiz to be happy, they let him go hunting at his pleasure. By the time he turned sixteen (and the time at which our story really begins), he was such an accomplished hunter he single - handedly supplied the village with most of the meat it needed. Such was his skill and care that Jiigibiig let the youngster use the Winchester repeating rifl e. Bimaadiz didn't need more than one shot, unless there was more than one deer or moose, but it was an honor to carry it. Jiigibiig and Zhookaagiizhigookwe, and those who remembered how he was found, suspected his power was the result of his contact with the cow moose during his infancy. Once, after hearing Bimaadiz shoot, Jiigibiig walked back into the woods with a sled to help him haul out his catch (for he was sure to have killed something, no doubt there was meat cooling on the ground), and he saw Bimaadiz kneeling over a dead moose, singing gently to the animal as he skinned it. It sounded like a lullaby, not a victory song, and the way Bimaadiz skinned the animal made the scene seem more like a birth than butchery. Because of the nimbus of affection surrounding him and because of the gifts given to him by his fi rst mother and the milk he received from his second mother, the moose, Bimaadiz grew into a singular young man. He was tall and strong but not thick; his body was supple and slender, with wide shoulders and very long fi ngers. His waist was narrow, but like a coiled spring - full of potential strength. His black hair was thick and smooth and he kept it cut short and parted in the middle, slicked down with hair oil. All the girls, even the older women, gasped when he walked by. It was a good life at Agencytown in those years; meat was never so plentiful and everyone loved the quiet hunter who provided for them so well.

2. Eta had grown up, too. She alone, perhaps, possessed more beauty than Bimaadiz did. She was tall for her age, and though not fi ne boned, she was lean and strong. Yet she had delicate fi ngers, and straight black hair that was always in two braids that hung down to her lower back. Her waist was narrow and her breasts, in advance of her years, were round and fi rm. All the boys and all the men sighed when she walked past. Her skin was smooth, clear, coppery, and healthy year round, except on her left cheek there was a dark round mark, very faint, that looked as though it had been left there when the wolf who had suckled her had kissed her cheek with her nose. It was really only a birthmark, it had been there before the she - wolf nosed the infant, but Aantti and Mary liked to think the wolf had left its mark. It seemed to the villagers that Eta had acquired some of the wolf's characteristics: she was incredibly intelligent, patient, concerned for others, and serious when anyone was looking, but silly and girl - like when she thought she was unobserved. Aantti and Mary were overjoyed at the unexpected gift of a daughter, especially since they thought they would never have one of their own. And so, being the object of so much happiness, Eta grew up receiving happiness. Her parents doted on her and gave her whatever it was that she wanted. They didn't have much to give - a poor sawyer and his Indian wife. Buttons, a bit of cloth, these were her toys. But all the same, the girl didn't want much. And she worked hard. Once her mother saw her hanging off the pump handle, her feet off the ground, as she tried to fi ll the water bucket. She helped her mother in all things - fetching water, wrapping big blue stem with wiigoob to make brooms and whisks. The thing she really wanted was to accompany her mother on the trapline, and this from even before she could walk properly. Mary bundled her in furs and placed her in the toboggan along with the snares and mink bait and set off for the string of lean - tos and temporary shelters along their trapping grounds. Mary never had to worry that Eta would struggle out of her wrappings or cry with impatience or trample the clean trails where she set the snares for rabbit and fox. Eta stayed in the toboggan, and as long as she could see above the tumble of tools and furs and watch Mary's hands at work, she was happy. Even when she was teething, all her mother had to do, upon fi nding a rabbit in a snare, was cut off the lower leg and hand it to Eta for her to chew on - the fl esh was so tough and cold, so laced with tendons that the rubbery texture soothed Eta's gums and she did not cry and sat quietly and observed Mary's broad back in front of the heavily loaded toboggan. As soon as she could walk, Eta followed behind the toboggan. Sometimes Mary pulled out of sight because Eta was still a small child and could not keep up, but all she had to do was follow the marks left by the toboggan and she would catch up eventually. By the time she was six years old she was setting all the rabbit snares herself. They never ate so many rabbits as when Eta set her snares. She secured them at just the right height and was so adept at matching the color of the snare to its surroundings that even a creature as suspicious as a rabbit could not see it. Mary said nothing about why she thought Eta was such a good trapper, but she suspected it was a result of her contact with the she - wolf, a benefi t of the wolf's milk. By the time Eta was twelve years old (and the point at which our story starts), she had taken over all the trapping. Mary could stay in the village and found much relief in her daughter's abilities; Mary was getting old and trapping had become diffi cult. For Eta trapping was as easy as breathing. She loaded the sled herself and, sometimes with a team of dogs pulling the sled, sometimes pulling it herself, set off for weeks at a time. When she came back the sled would always be full of fur - beaver, mink, martin, fi sher, weasel, bobcat, lynx - and loaded with meat too because sometimes she did some hunting on the side. Aantti was so pleased he gave her his puukko, the only possession that remained with him that he had taken from Finland. It had been his father's and the curved steel blade was perfect for skinning. Eta kept it sharp and made sure it never rusted. Who could hope for a better child? Skilled, earnest, respectful, concerned only for her parents and the animals she trapped. Her parents' only worry was about her beauty. She was so beautiful she caused everyone near her to shudder with longing, to stand up straight, to talk loudly in voices meant for her to hear. Some of them bragged about what they'd caught in their traps. But this only made her ignore them all the more. Eta loved the animals she trapped and took care to put their carcasses where the dogs would not ravage them. She brushed their fur before she sold them, conscious always of the life the animals were bestowing on her family. To brag about killing them was beneath her contempt. So, for the time being, Aantti and Mary put their worries aside. Eta seemed to be safe from the dangers of desire.

3. Bimaadiz had one other interest other than hunting and that was Eta. As for the beautiful girl, Bimaadiz was as precious to her as the animals she trapped. From an early age Bimaadiz's hunting and Eta's trapping had brought them together since his hunting grounds and her trapline overlapped. Bimaadiz, drawing out the fi rst syllable of her name, would say “Eh - taa” - and shyly, in response, she would elongate the second syllable of his name, saying Bi - maaa - diz” - and so they had a special of addressing each other and took the greatest pleasure in each other's company. Bimaadiz would tell Eta where he had seen some rich fox runs and so, on his advice, Eta would hang her snares there to catch them. For her part, upon seeing moose tracks around an isolated slough, she would inform Bimaadiz and, sure enough, a few days later he would have killed a fat cow and a tender calf, enough to feed to the whole village for a week. They were such good friends that he would save the tongue for her and her parents. And having caught a fawn in one her snares, she tanned the hide and sewed it into a bandolier bag for Bimaadiz to keep his shells and food in. When she was sick, he would check her traps for her, and she would kill some game for him when he had other chores to do around Agencytown and could not get out into the woods. But they were children after all, and so their activities weren't always so serious. As a joke she made a doll out of marsh grass (having no cornhusks at that season to make a proper doll). She used the guard hairs from a fi sher for the doll's braids, and the broken trigger from a steel trap was used to represent his gun. All in all it was a good likeness of Bimaadiz. Seeing some deer tracks she set the doll on the trail where she knew Bimaadiz would fi nd it. Bimaadiz also made trinkets for his friend - toy snares only big enough for mice and hoops made from willow twigs for stretching them. This continued - their ideal friendship, their ideal life, until the spirits conspired to make things more diffi cult for the two. Dr Apelles looks back down at the manuscript. The bell will sound at any moment now. His translation has lodged itself deep in his consciousness. It, and another signifi cant question, continue to plague him. But now, it is no accident, his thoughts turn to the library - not this one, not the archive - in which he works. It is universally acknowledged that - in addition to the history of Charlemagne and of the printing press and also in addition to narratives told to us by a friend detailing the dreams of other friends of his whom we do not know - the description of a person's typical day at work is among the most boring kind of story in existence. However, since Dr Apelles' vacation in the country of his imagination, governed in part by the itinerary of the manuscript, which, it must be said, is also impossibly linked to his daily work, we must follow him to work and hear out the story of his days. The bell will ring soon. It should be said that the archive to which he goes every other Friday is, strictly speaking, not a library, and neither is the building in which he works the other nine days out of the fortnight. Those days, the nine days (not counting holidays and weekends) out of fourteen that form the architecture of his life if not the action (though this will change), are spent at RECAP, which, as we have said, is a library but also is not a library. Since, if it isn't apparent yet, RECAP is a place where books are captured, tagged, and then withheld from - not released into - the general population of other books; where, to put it another way, books are forced into a system designed to keep track of how they are forgotten; that is, designed to give structure and meaning to ignorance and anonymity; to create a special place for books that haven't been read or if they have, not often enough; all of this is to say that, contrary to what we have come to expect from stories such as this - the forgotten or unknown or undervalued or obsolete signifi cance of Dr Apelles' works and days - the dusty corners of his life, if his life were a house (and if it were we would expect to fi nd it represented by, signifi ed by, a single dusty houseplant, an umbrella, or a shoe tree at best, and an empty fl ower pot, a persistent water ring on the fl oor, and a broken bit of string, at worst), is where we should begin looking at the no longer dreary dream of Dr Apelles' days. He had long been settled in apartment 33 J. Long enough to have begun to feel as though he owned the place. He was well thought of in the neighborhood of the other apartments. Having lived there for so long, he possessed a remarkable amount of information about his neighbors: their ages and ailments, the progressive ages of their children, their various and varied occupations and so on. Most of all, he was quite good at remembering names. And so, when in conversation with his neighbors they always felt, given Dr Apelles' polite and thoroughly informed interest, that his portraits of them, of their public and semi - public virtues, were such accurate and pleasing likenesses that he was, as far as they were concerned, the perfect neighbor. In short, he flattered them, but not intentionally.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Why does Treuer interrupt the last sentence of the “Translator's Introduction,” carrying it over onto the first page of the novel itself? What does this suggest about the kind of narrative that will follow? In what ways does the novel violate the conventions of realistic fiction?

2. After Dr. Apelles finds the manuscript, he feels “he has found a document for which he himself is the only remaining key, and because of it he knows that he has never been in love. The reasons for this strange predicament are nowise clear to him, but he can sense there is a connection between the translation and love” [p. 24]. What is the connection between the translation and love? Why is he suddenly aware, after finding the document, that he has never been in love?

3. Why does Treuer choose not to name the city where Dr. Apelles lives? How does this lack of a recognizable setting affect the way readers relate to the story?

4. In what ways does Apelles' translation attempt to bridge the gap between traditional Native American tribal culture and the more isolating lifestyle of contemporary urban America? Does it succeed in doing so?

5. Who is the narrator of the novel? Are there any clues that might indicate where the narrator is placed, or with whom he/she is allied? Which character's point of view is most trustworthy?

6. In what ways is The Translation of Dr. Apelles about the act of telling stories? Why are stories so important in the novel? Why does Apelles think that if he tells his story “in the wrong way, it would cease to be real, it would no longer be his life because it would become a story like all the other stories about hispeople . . .” [p. 203]?

7. Both Bimaadiz and Eta are foundlings—children born without a context to guide them in learning who they are and where they belong. Part of their progress toward becoming their genuine selves comes from the need to trace their own histories. Is this also true for Dr. Apelles and Campaspe?

8. There are many parallels between Eta and Bimaadiz. When either of them is confronted by a life-altering event, that event is mirrored in the life of the other. What purpose does this serve? What other kinds of mirroring occur in the novel?

9. Discuss the representation of gender roles in the novel. Are they stable or inflexible? How does the novel represent differences in gender roles between the different cultures? Native American and white? Past and present? Private and public? Solitary and community-based? Nurtured by the organic world or inserted in the corporate workplace?

10. In what ways is Eta different from Bimaadiz? Do these differences arise because she is female, or because she has a different relationship with her origins and natural world, or both? How do the differences between the translator and Campaspe echo Bimaadiz and Eta's relationship?

11. As each love story develops, Treuer vividly describes the power of falling in love. But just as each corresponding story reaches the heights of happiness and satisfaction, the narrative repeats in each instance that something terrible happens. Why does Treuer find it important to stress that happiness doesn't last?

12. What are some of the ways in which Treuer reveals the consequences of the act of reading? What does the novel as a whole suggest about the role that language plays in communicating love? What does it suggest about the ways in which words, images, and metaphors embody human emotion and experience?

13. The Translation of Dr. Apelles has been described as a postmodernist novel, a meta-fiction, a work of highly sophisticated literary game-playing. What aspects of the novel and of Treuer's narrative technique support such descriptions? How does the novel's high level of artifice affect the way readers relate to the love stories that it tells?

14. What effect does the final sentence of the novel—“Satisfied with the first sentence, he turns away” [p. 315]—have on the trail that the reader has followed throughout the novel? How does the ending, in general, affect or alter everything that has come before? What is the significance of Apelles' turning away?

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