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The Translation of Dr. Apelles: A Love Story – by David Treuer

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The Translation of Dr. Apelles: A Love Story – by David Treuer

The Translation of Dr. Apelles: A Love Story - by David Treuer 1
The Translation of Dr. Apelles: A Love Story
by David Treuer
Graywolf Press, 315 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

The Translator as Lover

“In the tradition of Calvino, Borges and Saramago,” a blurb for David Treuer’s September 27 reading at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City runs, “Treuer has written the great post-modern Native American novel.” I’d like to submit that this isn’t true—or rather that, even if the novel does bear some slight resemblance to a postmodern novel, that really isn’t the best way to read it. The novel’s postmodernism is not its strongest or even its most salient feature; and comparing the book to Calvino, Borges, and Saramago does it a great disservice.

Before I start, a warning: the novel has a surprise ending, and I’m going to be revealing and discussing it. If you hate spoilers before reading a novel, you may not want to read this review.

Let me begin, then, with the novel’s self-referentiality, its metafictional self-undermining: we are given a mythic Indian love story (based, in fact, on Longus’ second-century Greek erotic romance Daphnis and Chloe) about two orphans, the boy Bimaadiz and the girl Eta, but it is told at one remove, through the “translation” made by Dr Apelles; and Dr Apelles turns out in the end to be a fabulator whose textual unreliability (a byproduct of his own love story) undermines the translation’s credibility. The theory would be that in this postmodern world everything is text, which means that nothing is real but the imaginative constructs we impose on texts—or, to run that the other way, the things that feel most real to us, especially our feelings of love and friendship for other people, are themselves constructs tied to the interpretation of verbal and bodily texts.

This epistemological layering of the narrative would then be read as a series of reminders that the stories we are reading are complexly mediated to us: when we read the rather simple-hearted story of the love between Bimaadiz and Eta, for example, we can’t just blithely assume that we are learning about “Indian culture”; what we are learning about is a story told to us by someone, in this case by several someones, the story’s imaginary and nameless “original” author, Dr Apelles as its translator and narrator (and supposed “real” author), and David Treuer as its actual author.

The same thing is true of Dr Apelles and Campaspe’s love story, which frames the Indian love story: a very similar narrator tells that story, a narrator who remains nameless throughout most of the novel but turns out in the end to be Dr Apelles himself, adopting a series of verbally constructed personalities. The idea that a single character or narrator has or should have a single coherent personality is an outdated remnant of a premodern sensibility, and Dr Apelles’ narrative voices are multiple, scattered by register shifts on almost every page.

What’s wrong with the postmodern approach to the novel, I suggest, is that—especially when compared with Borges or Calvino—Treuer doesn’t seem all that interested in doing anything with all of this. Technically innovative as the end of his novel is, his real interests in the book are thematic, and fairly old-fashioned: he wants to tell us something about love. By the end of the novel, when Dr Apelles has grown in maturity and connectedness, his narrative voice has grown as well, moved past its earlier scatteredness, become strong and unified—which suggests that the voice shifts throughout the novel are once again thematic, not death-of-the-subject postmodern.

For most of the novel his narrative voice is hesitant, a bit amateurish, somewhat peckish or howeverish, like the narrator of a Victorian novel, and in general rather bland, not given to bursts of passion or flights of fancy—like Dr Apelles himself, in fact, whom we do not know until the final pages to associate with the narrator. Occasionally he does something Sternean-cute, as on page 54 when he writes “like a page break inserted before a new” and then puts “page” on page 55, all alone, before returning to the narrative on page 56. Occasionally we get some passion, but it’s typically so amateurishly stylized as to seem mountain-out-of-a-molehillish and not a little absurd:

Apelles saw him, waved, and approached. Victor was flushed and excited. It was his first trip to the big city.

“Victor?” Dr Apelles could not stop himself from smiling. It was a great, warm, selfless smile.

“Uncle,” replied Victor, and he, too, without quite knowing why, greeted the other with a smile that was friendly, without guile.

Apelles’ soul thrilled at the sound of the word “uncle.”

Through most of the novel the voice sounds like the kind of storyteller who visits elementary schools and gets hired to tell Indian tales at fairs, and will never break out of this level of storytelling because he has no sense of his audience. His emotions seem completely out of synch with the events he’s telling about—or rather, out of synch with the emotions one might expect a narrator and his reader to be sharing. Even when the narrator solemnly announces to us that terrible things are going to happen because this is not a fairy tale, the same bland fairy-tale voice wraps us in its soft comfy verbal cotton and protects us against all suspense.

At one point, for example, Eta is up a tree gathering basswood blossoms for tea when the tree she’s in is cut down by some evil sailors; when the tree falls and she topples to the ground unconscious they take her to their ship as their sex slave. The narrator tells us “If this were a more magical story, Eta’s tears—copious, wrenched from her little girl’s heart as she contemplated an end to a life just begun—would rain down on the men below and would sink into their clothing, soak their upturned faces, and infect them with her sadness,” causing them to treat her decently. “But this is not that kind of story,” the narrator cautions, “because, unlike fairy tales and fairy-tale tears, this story and Eta’s story are true.” So Eta is carried off. But Bimaadiz tracks her to the shore and sees the boat retreating with his love and cries himself to sleep, and dreams of an ancient man who promises not only to rescue Eta but to ensure that Eta and Bimaadiz live forever. Bimaadiz in return promises always to make offerings for the man. Before the men on the boat can rape her, the boat splinters and sinks, and Eta escapes by holding onto the beards of twin moose calves, who swim her to safety.

There are two voices here, really. One is a conventional fairy-tale voice telling a conventional magical, mythical fairy tale, a voice that remains matter-of-fact no matter how miraculous the events that transpire. The other is a flat nasal midwestern voice of reason assuring us that this isn’t a fairy tale, that it’s all true: “And they,” this voice says of Eta’s tears, “had no power except the power to express her fears and the chemical power to clean her eyes of any dust or other impurities.” This voice has no ear (or perhaps patience) for the sonorities of literary prose; it deliberately reduces story to imageless and rhythmless banalities like “the chemical power to clean her eyes of any dust or other impurities,” and (elsewhere) “the truly draining experience of writing his dissertation,” and “Our language is really dying.” The fact that these two voices overlap and intertwine here signals not postmodern playfulness but Dr Apelles’ narrative disconnect, or perhaps his slow progressive connect, the fact that he is only gradually learning how to talk to people, to be heard by people, and gets things jumbled up. At the end, when Campaspe asks Dr Apelles “why each section sounded so different,” he replies “that’s good, that’s so good of you to notice that … the answer: I did not know yet who I was. I had no language for myself.” Above all, he had no language for the relationship between writer and reader, or between lover and beloved. He didn’t know how to write because he didn’t know how to be read, how to offer himself up to be read. As a result, at this point in the novel all the events are equally magical to him, and equally mundane; everything is the miracle of story and the truth of the human heart; it’s all flowery sentimentalism (“as magnificent and tender as the soughing of the white pine that towered over and protected them both”) and flat no-nonsense anti-literary truth-telling (“she knew a lot,” and “she really opened up to him”).

Note, for example, how—riskily—Treuer pushes the novel’s narrative voice toward bad undergraduate writing: by saturating it with dangling modifiers (“Dr Apelles has created a very well-regulated order to his life because, by doing so, the inevitable and pleasurable deviations from that order are thereby revealed,” “As a port city all kinds of goods were unloaded there”), split infinitives (“able to completely obliterate”), substandard past tenses (“with their heads thrown back, which then sunk back down”), number incongruencies (“Now neither Bimaadiz nor Eta were able to concentrate,” “each in their own bedroll,” “to Aantti and Mary was promised fifteen buffalo robes”), and cute nonce constructions (“unbeknownst to Campaspe but knownst to Dr Apelles”). The Publisher’s Weekly reviewer’s description of the novel’s voice as “the author’s beautiful prose—Flaubert in some places, Chekhov in others—” isn’t entirely misleading (there are a few wonderfully written passages, especially at the end, but even early on), but does seem remarkably inattentive to the book’s many sudden register shifts from the sublime to the bathetic, from the sentimental to the flat, from the floridly literary to the barely literate. That reviewer’s contention that the narrator’s voice “grabs and holds attention so well that even the narrative contrivances and unlikely coincidences don’t diminish the pleasurable reading experience” is of course purely subjective, as this sort of pronouncement inescapably is; the risk Treuer takes in flirting so insistently with bad writing is that it won’t grab and hold attention: that the pleasurable reading experience will be so diminished that the reader will put the book down in disgust. (I have to confess: I had a hard time getting through it. I loved the ending, but had to force my way through Dr Apelles’ learning process to that ending.)

Even when Dr Apelles (as “postmodern” narrator) does wax allusively playful, he doesn’t seem inclined to do much with his cute little passing allusions. On p. 135, for example, he has himself riding home from work with Campaspe in a cab during an ice storm, listening to the cabbie having “long conversations in Urdu” on his cell phone; he can’t understand the Urdu, but “out of habit he did catch the words smoke, Hamid, and moth.” Presumably the cabbie is a Pakistani, having a literary conversation about Mohsin Hamid’s first novel Moth Smoke—but why? The narrative never recurs to this novel or this literary tradition; there is nothing in either of the novel’s plot lines that even vaguely resembled Hamid’s Daru’s downward spiral from his banking job into drug abuse and a marginal existence. Perhaps we should imagine Dr Apelles trying to learn how to interact with his readers by dropping arcane literary hints to see if they can pick them up?

The more closely we study the odd little moments in the novel, in fact, the quirky passages that seem spiky with signposts, the clearer it becomes that the successful ones aren’t playful at all, and have little or nothing to do with postmodern epistemological skepticism. In the first section devoted to Dr Apelles’ own life, on pages 30 and 31, for example, he builds into his anonymous third-person narration a pronoun shift that is awkward enough to draw attention to itself, and thus possibly to signal to the reader that there is something not quite right about the narrator’s third-person address:
It is strange for him to think of himself as having a soul. He would like someone to help him chart its dimensions. He touches his chest with his fingertips and thinks: there is something inside. Past my shirt, and past this old skin, and deeper still, there is something inside of me. I can sense it yet, even if I cannot see it. Just as I cannot see, not fully, the scenes of my past: my sorrows and my joys. And my tribe, which in itself is strange to say. I have been studying the languages of others for so long I have not thought of myself as having a tribe or a reservation any longer. But those things are inside me, too.

Treuer’s trick here is to give us “and thinks” as a kind of nominal explanation of the pronoun shift, and then, without quotes or italics or other typographical markers distinguishing it from the narrator’s voice, let the interior voice of Dr Apelles run on too long to be a record of his thought in that moment, let it run on so long that it begins to sound like the voice of a first-person narrator. This is one of the few signals he gives early on that Dr Apelles is the novel’s narrator.

But it’s also an early (self-)exploration of the novel’s central thematic concern: the growth of Dr Apelles into relationship, into connection with others. This is the part of the book that I think works best. Treuer’s approach to it is marginally metafictional, in that he sets up a series of parallels between writing a book and translating a book and loving and being loved; but the metafiction is fairly mild, based on the self-referentiality of a narrator rather than “the Author” (David Treuer never appears in the book, in any guise), and it is in the service not of any postmodern epistemological mise en abyme but rather of the traditional Bildungsroman’s concern with personal growth, with the maturation process. Treuer’s purpose in setting up a tricky ending is partially to undermine the illusion of reality, perhaps—to remind us that the cute little Indian love story he tells isn’t “Indian life” but a story he invented, a fiction—but more importantly it is to demonstrate that his main character and narrator has grown into a socially connected psychological maturity that doesn’t need tricky fictional distancing devices like a misleading third-person narrative voice or playful allusions like the Moth Smoke gimmick.

The novel begins with a Translator’s Introduction, in which an italicized first-person voice—presumably Dr Apelles, though “the translator” is unnamed—tells us that he has found in the archive a Native American manuscript “covered with text in a language I did not understand.” So he goes looking for someone who can read it and “After much searching I found someone who could make sense of those words for me. I listened as he spoke the story out loud.” Then begins the Prologue, the first section of which tells the stories of the orphaning and rescuing of four-year-old Bimaadiz and three-month-old Eta; the second section tells us that “Dr Apelles looks up from the manuscript in front of him on the library table, he has just finished the first part of his translation,” presumably the foundling stories we have just finished reading. The burden of this section, however, is that working on this manuscript he has found, translating it from an unnamed Native language into English, has caused his world to collapse. He’s not sure why, but “he can sense that there is a connection between the translation and love.” As he sits in the archive, an hour before closing, feeling “faint, dizzy,” trying to figure out what’s happening to him, he realizes that his strange feeling has something to do with the fact that the Native manuscript “has languished—unknown and untranslated in a language no one save him speaks,” and that he too “has no reader for his heart. And he never has [had].” He is the only living speaker of the languages both of the manuscript and of his own heart. He realizes that he wants love, wants to love and be loved, wants to translate love “into a language that someone, somewhere, will want to read.” And “he knows, surely, that the answer to both the translation and to love will be the same.”

And it is the same, literally: he writes (“translates” and narrates) the novel as a way of writing himself into love. He writes Bimaadiz in love with Eta and calls it a translation; he writes himself in love with Campaspe and attaches those pages to his translation, as if by way of commentary. We only learn at the end of the novel that this is what he has done, when his lover Campaspe finds the pages and reads them and steals them, and then they are stolen from her by their fellow coworker Jesus, and then they are stolen from him and hidden from the world by their boss Ms Manger; but if we do as Dr Apelles instructs us to do in the Translator’s Introduction, read the novel and then return to the opening pages and read them again, we see all the subtle little clues he’s been dropping all along.

One such clue, from two paragraphs ago: in the Translator’s Introduction Dr Apelles can’t read the manuscript, and has to find someone to read it out loud to him before he can understand it; in the Prologue he is the last speaker of the language it’s written in, and thus the only person who can read it. Should we assume that there is a logical explanation for the apparent contradiction here—that Dr Apelles truly is the only person who can speak the language, but he can’t read it, doesn’t know the script, say, and so has to have someone read it aloud before he can understand it? But is it really possible to read aloud a text in a language that you can’t speak? Dr Apelles later refers to “the dead languages that keep him company,” and the language the text is written in may well be one of those; but people do speak dead languages, like Latin. Having returned from the end of the book to these opening pages, we realize that the “language” only he can speak is the language of his heart, and the person he has to go find to read it to him is Campaspe: there is no contradiction at all.

Another clue he drops is Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s name: on p. 62 we are told that Dr Apelles has published an article “on the relation between song and vocables in Ojibway as evidenced in Schoolcraft’s transcription of ‘Chant to the Fire-Fly.’” Schoolcraft, of course, was the notoriously “creative” scholar, translator, and transcriber of Ojibwe tales in the early to mid-nineteenth century on whose books—specifically Algic Researches and History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow based his 1855 “Indian Edda,” Hiawatha. Treuer’s previous novel was The Hiawatha, a gritty realistic multigenerational story about a poor Ojibwe family in the slums of Minneapolis, and Treuer himself is half-Ojibwe (his father is Armenian). Treuer doesn’t do anything with Longfellow’s poem in the novel, but Schoolcraft’s name surreptitiously signals “tricky translation” or “invented story disguised as a translation.” As the ethnologist Horatio Hale wrote in the late nineteenth century, Schoolcraft distorted the Ojibwe tales he “translated” by borrowing elements of the Ojibwe deity Nanabozho or Manabozho or Nanabush and renaming him after the historical Iroquois leader Hiawatha (or Tayonwatha, or Thannawege) and/or the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon (or Tearonhiaonagon, Taonhiawagi, or Tahiawagi). As Hale writes, Schoolcraft’s later book about Hiawatha “has not in it a single fact or fiction relating either to Hiawatha himself or to the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon.”

Yet another clue: the infant Eta is found and then adopted by a Finnish man (and his Native wife) named Aantti Home (Andy Mold). Longfellow’s other model for Hiawatha was the Finnish Kalevala, collected, compiled, and edited into a coherent “national epic” by Elias Lönnrot in the 1830s and 1840s. Longfellow had no Finnish, but had read the Kalevala in Anton Schiefner’s 1852 German translation, and went to Stockholm and hired a Finnish tutor, Gustaf Henrik Mellin, to teach him the language, but the language eluded him, and he ended borrowing what he could for Hiawatha (including the trochaic tetrameter verse form and several scenes) from Schiefner’s translation. Not a particularly strong connection, true—but all of these texts, Lönnrot’s Kalevala, Schoolcraft’s English Ojibwe tales, Schiefner’s German Kalevala, and Longfellow’s Hiawatha, share with The Translation of Dr Apelles the creation of a new literary text with its own specific cultural agendas and the presentation of that new text as an old text, an existing text, a well-established text, Lönnrot and Longfellow presenting their creations as “national epics,” Schoolcraft and Schiefner theirs as “translations.”

And indeed the whole question of the reliability of the translator from Native American languages is central to the novel. To what extent can we trust an English story that claims to be an “authentic Native American myth”? Is it really that myth, or has it been assimilated to English literary conventions, or, worse (or perhaps better?), invented out of the whole cloth? We are told about Dr Apelles that “his translations of Native American texts require him to be more faithful to the language he is translating than to the moment of its expression (and this is the principle difference between translating Native American languages and translating all others; more care is usually given to the fragile vessel than to its contents), structure more important than style, form more precious than content, rules more actual than the behaviors either allowed or prohibited.” This “principle difference” stems not from the “languages themselves” (whatever that means) but from the cultural value imposed on them, what we might call the ethnologization of Native American languages, their conversion into the “fragile vessels” not of stories or people (“contents”) but of a myth of loss, the great collective “death” of the Indian that Treuer complains about in an interview. If what matters is not the stories about people living their lives but the preciousness of what little remains of a destroyed culture, then form will be more precious than content.

One final clue: Treuer signals in one of his three literary epigraphs that he has taken the names of his characters in the present, Apelles and Campaspe, from John Lyly’s 1584 play Alexander and Campaspe, which retells the story Pliny gives us in his histories of Alexander the Great’s concubine Campaspe and the painter Apelles. Treuer’s epigraph from that play, “Apelles’ Song,” signals not only the literariness of his novel but his self-conscious mining of the English courtly tradition—once again reminding us subtly that the novel is not “pure” or “authentic” Native American culture but a literary construct in English, a novel at least partly written in conventions borrowed from several centuries of English literature. (This is a bugbear of Treuer’s, which he argues forcefully in his critical volume published simultaneously by Graywolf, Native American Fiction: A User’s Guide: Native American fiction is fiction, not Indian life.)

The most interesting direction that this clue points us in, however, has to do with the novel’s Alexander character, who seems to be Ms Manger, the director of RECAP, the book storage facility in which both Dr Apelles and Campaspe work. She is in charge; she “owns” Dr Apelles and Campaspe, just as Alexander owns their namesakes in the original tale Pliny told and John Lyly retold. And maybe I’m pushing too hard on this clue, but Manger backwards is “regnam,” which if I haven’t entirely forgotten my college Latin means “I reigned” or “I was king” or “I was in charge,” or even “I prevailed.”

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and I agree: this one is even more of a stretch than my Hiawatha clues. If this is indeed how Treuer named Ms Manger, he was really going for subtle. (The other way of reading her name relies on the fact that the translation is first stolen from Campaspe by Jesus and then by Ms Manger, who hides it away in a box in the storage facility: the translation is named Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and placed in a manger? And Mary (Aantti Home’s Native wife’s name—just a thought) kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart? RECAP is described early in the book as “a sacred location where every book had its place”: maybe that’s what the Christian nativity allusions suggest?)

The advantage of reading Ms Manger as the novel’s Alexander, though, is that Alexander loved Campaspe but she didn’t return his love, so when he discovered that his concubine and his painter had fallen in love, he gave Campaspe to Apelles out of gratitude for his art—and, through a nice shift, Ms Manger loves Dr Apelles but he doesn’t return her love, so when she discovers that Dr Apelles and Campaspe are having an affair, she steals Dr Apelles’ work of art and puts it in a secure (and obscure) location in her facility. Since the book that she thus locks away is called a translation but is actually “the novel of Dr Apelles’ life,” or even of his heart, of his love, what she is storing away is an artistic simulacrum of the love that she could not win from him—very like the portrait of Campaspe that Alexander took from Apelles in return for the woman herself, and her love.

And look at the telltale use of the adjective “great” in this paragraph, from the end:

Ms Manger could not let it rest there. all the years of her life filled with nothing, filled only with longing, make her want to act. she has always wanted to be the one—not her, not Campaspe; not it, not the translation of Dr Apelles’ life. her life is as great, her life is as interesting. isn’t it? since she cannot compel Apelles or Campaspe or Jesus or the translation or anyone to pay attention to her, since she cannot make them do what she wants, she can at the least, control how everything ends.

What is Treuer doing with this ending? Apart from the postmodern hall of mirrors it sets up—if Dr Apelles has a love affair with Campaspe in the novel that he writes, and (still in the novel) she steals the novel one night after they have sex, do they “really” have an affair or is it all in his head, all on his page?—there is the crucial matter of the fate of his “translation,” his novel. What does it mean that it is hidden away forever in a storage facility for books that no one wants to read? Is Dr Apelles back to square one, with no one to read him, no one to read his heart?

Treuer leaves the answer to this question up to his readers; but I for one don’t think the ending is so bleak. It’s happy. It’s practically ecstatic. Not only does Dr Apelles’ spirit fly out into the night and up to RECAP, into the storage space, right up to the very box the translation is hidden in—the imaginer knows the location of his creation, it’s not lost—but all the images of its resting spot are calm, restful, and holy: “there is nothing to be afraid of,” he writes. “there is comfort and company here—written but beyond speech. something holy about this communion of books.” Dr Apelles, the author of the story, the writer of the ending in which his story is stolen by his lover, knows that she is betraying him, but does not feel betrayed, because he knows that what she is stealing is his heart, is the novel of his heart, and she does it because she wants to possess him, and he has now learned that being possessed is better than not being possessed. Possessed by Campaspe, Dr Apelles does not lose himself; on the contrary, it is through her possession of him, her thieving reading of him, that he gains himself. And Campaspe has read it, not once but over and over. She doesn’t need the actual pages in order to read it again; she reads it in her own heart, and in her lover’s.

My sense, in fact, is that Ms Manger’s storage of the book in the perfect hiding place is a kind of regnant blessing on her employees’ love: she puts the novel of their love in a place where it will be safe, where no unfriendly eyes will ever read it, where it will never be judged. It’s the lover’s ultimate fantasy: our love will be only ours forever, never cheapened by public scrutiny, never diminished by the inevitable misunderstandings of others.

And in an odd sense, belying our usual desire to get our books into print, it may be the novelist’s ultimate fantasy as well: your novel is read by the one perfect reader who understands it in all its wonderful rich complexity, and then it is locked away forever in that reader’s heart, so no one else can walk all over it with the critic’s cynical jackboots—no one can read through it looking for solecisms, failures of imagination, infelicitous phrasings, “bad undergraduate writing,” effects that fall short and come across as merely “cute,” and the rest of the negative things I’ve said about Treuer’s novel.

Well: as I say, I loved the ending. I loved a lot of the rest of the book as well, but was bored or annoyed by a lot of it as well—which is to say that I’m probably not Treuer’s ideal reader, but also that the ideal holy or mystical storage place for a novel doesn’t exist. All Treuer could and can do is to find a publisher for it and hope for the best, then settle for whatever he gets. Including this review—which is undoubtedly far from the best review a writer could hope for, but, I hope, just as far from the worst.

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