The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Translation of Dr Apelles: A Love Story

Posted on: February 19, 2007

I hope you accept this offering, this book, this gift of beauty, and that you read it to the end. And then, turn back here and read it again.

That line was taken from the “Translator’s Introduction” that acts as something of a preface. It introduces the story’s meta-fictional element. Is this voice that of the author or the protagonist, Dr Apelles? Is it referring to the discovered manuscript mentioned on the jacket copy or to the novel as a whole? Well, you say, if the book is worth it’s salt it refers to both. But at the end the novel, as the entity I saw it, was called into question when Treuer took me another step back out of the narrative; my reading of it before had to be re-assessed and adjusted to stretch and fit into this new shape he had created. A new shape he had been meticulously creating from the preface. That alone is a compelling enough reason for me to read it again.

Treuer plays with the strands of narrative throughout the novel. You may be led into a scene, fully-developed and taken to its end, only to be whisked back to the starting point and shown that what now follows is what actually happened. But you can’t stop questioning because even the present scene has a forced artificiality that renders it suspect, leaving it to you to discern what is true from the two scenes. I’m thinking specifically of the prologue. First we’re given the background to the two characters, Eta and Bimaadiz, two orphans discovered by two different groups of strangers among the dead in the bite of winter. Bimaadiz was found at the teat of a moose, Eta suckling a she-wolf. We’re taken out of that to Dr. Apelles sitting in the library near closing time, translating what we’ve just read. The third person narrator’s tone here is intense and delicate, depicting Apelles’ aching loneliness and introspective personality, how enclosed his personal space seems to be, impenetrable, as he reacts to his discovered manuscript.

No one is looking at him at all. And no one has looked at him for years. If he ceased to exist no one would notice…This is why Dr Apelles is so shaken, why his world, as he has known it, has come to an end. He has no reader for his heart. And he never has.

We’re taken through Apelles’ typical Friday night routine and then ta daa , “Book I”, we’re on a roll. And we’re taken back through that same Friday night except that this time the narrator’s tone, still sympathetic, is less emotional, less intense, a bit more practical. Dr Apelles’ conversation with the librarian here, in contrast to the sombre, implausibly profound short conversation we were first given, is less personal and more of the banter one would expect. Yet the jocular attitude and cheerful optimism of both characters seem forced, not least for our introverted Apelles, that we can’t really buy it either. Even the syntax is different: the first conversation was indented with no quotation marks, set apart from the narrative and laid bare to our gaze; the second decorated with the expected quotation marks, seamlessly fitted in with the rest of the story.

In other parts the move to a flashback is sometimes barely noticeable with only the the action and the characters indicating that we’ve gone back in time. At intervals I had to flip back a few pages to get my bearings and to see whether I had a hold on the action in the story. I never had to do that with Eta and Bimaadiz’s story, the structure and  prose straightforward. We’re never told anything about the origin of the manuscript but must glean what clues we can from the story itself, as Apelles translated it. It read like a myth or a fairytal. We followed the trials and triumphs of Eta and Bimaadiz as they befriend each other, go through many adventures that has each coming to the rescue of the other, all overseen and directed by gods who appear in human form to offer guidance and instruction. You can tell it’s going to have a happy ending but Treuer manages to make it suspenseful and exciting. (I often felt momentary regret when I had to leave their life for Dr Apelles.) I think he accomplished this by telling the story straight. There were no ironic post-modern flourishes and it didn’t even feel like a “re-imagining” of an old myth; it read like the real-deal that had been passed down for centuries and Treuer himself was simply relaying it to us in a new medium.

Which, considering its place in the plot, only makes sense, right? Still, I’m amazed that he so perfectly captured that tone.

The marked contrast in the two stories’ structure and style is remarkably effective at making each distinctive, creating a place for both worlds in your head, allowing you to be absorbed in each, open to little else when either is at the fore and accommodating better comparison when you care to do so. The writing in both is intoxicating.

As a character Dr Apelles himself is irresistible. I defy any reader to be aloof to his often painful solitude, to be bored by his internal conflict about his place in the world. His academic interests–a translator of Native American languages, by definition rare and some lost– led him away from his reservation. With this dislocation he tries very, very hard to figure out how to stay cognisant of himself as a person, as man first and foremost, rather than as a living embodiment of a country’s past. In the process of doing this, by making it an entirely internal process, and with his few damaging personal experiences aiding this introversion, he loses the ability to communicate on any but the most superficial terms with others. He doesn’t know how to share this understanding of himself. He is a difficult and beautiful character; the difficulty and beauty is, in a more literal and therefore artificial way than I usually mean, inextricably tethered to Treuer’s words.

What is remarkable is that the crowdedness of the city that he first noticed when he moved there as a younger man and quickly learned not to notice has been replaced with a sense of vacancy: everyone feels miles away from him…Usually, except for the two Fridays a month when he is a translator of Native American languages instead of a librarian of sorts, he pushes his languages to what he actually envisions as the back of his mind, in the bowl of bone atop his neck. There is no point in keeping languages he cannot use–with the waiters at the restaurant, at the dry-cleaners, with the librarians or floor workers he works with–ready, on the tip of his tongue. It is better to keep the whole cushion of his brain between them and his everyday language. But when he occasionally meets with Indians from his tribe, or other tribes, he can bring those beautiful languages to the front of his mind. So special are they to him that he produces them with the clumsy flourish of a teenager presenting a bouquet of flowers to a date. And he is a different person when he speaks those languages. He is sly and can tell a good joke. The puns and play come naturally. He can flirt in those languages. And they lend themselves to memory.

I’ll try to explain myself. For most of the novels I read I can imagine the characters quite readily, in full 3D on my mental screen, with strings of words circling around, detached but relevant. For Apelles his image in my mind…is words, it’s him offering his conversation like a bouquet of flowers, or his feeling of vertigo as he read the manuscript reminding him of his first plane flight away from his home. (I’m resisting the urge to quote that passage now.) I’m probably not making sense but, basically, I’ll need a handy pocket-sized edition to carry around with me always.

I also appreciated, on another level the circular form of the narrative, which helped to keep things together while the meta-fictional elements sent me down strange paths. Sentences at the end of the one section were completed in the new chapter title. Chapter titles themselves were often sentences, the idea continued in the body of the narrative. And the last sentence of the novel takes you back to the first.

I’ve addressed a very limited part of what Treuer’s executed here. It’s such a rich and rewarding book. Whatever it requires of you it returns two fold. While reading it I felt as if the author and I were working together to create this mystical, literary experience that would echo forever. (Not in the world, just in my own personal landscape.) All the focused reflection I had to do to write this post has brought back all my enthusiasm and, what I tried to do was to translate my cheshire grin, handstands, somersaults and back flips into words. (Sadly for me (and maybe the author?) this comes out as consideration on the novel’s form rather than a consideration of all its part, firmly managed and impressively served.)


2 Responses to "The Translation of Dr Apelles: A Love Story"

Wow, this sounds like a great book. Onto my TBR list it goes!

[…] pretty big in Spain. I’m expecting big things here because the other two Graywolf books I read this year retain their top […]

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