My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Translation of Dr. Apelles (2006) interleaves two stories: a semi-fantastical romance between two Indian youths apparently set in the 19th century, and a piece of sad semi-realism about a translator of Native American languages living a life of quiet desperation in a cold nameless modern city. At first, we are given to believe that the romance is an “authentic” Indian tale that the translator has found in an archive and is translating for us, even as his own life begins to echo the events of the old story. The clues mount, however, that Treuer is not telling a straightforward tale with a neat division between translation and commentary (the influence of Pale Fire is palpable).
For one thing, his translator-hero is named Apelles, after the painter whose picture of Alexander the Great’s mistress Campaspe was so lifelike that Alexander kept the portrait and gifted the living woman to Apelles, thus proving that art can both substitute for and change life. Similarly, the woman who will become Apelles’s lover in Treuer’s fiction is named what else but Campaspe. Apelles and Campaspe work in a somewhat science fictional archive for unread books, a tightly-controlled maximum-security prison for all those stories that will go unheard, a dystopian/utopian institution—probably borrowed from Saramago’s Registry of All the Names—that threatens Apelles with the threat that his own story will never be told or read. Moreover, Treuer’s narrative voice is itself never straightforward: it is a mobile, shifting, parodic one, now “doing” Hemingway, now the eighteenth-century novel, and now venturing upon philosophy.
Finally, as we read on, we eventually come to understand that Apelles’s narrative is actually the novel we have been reading about him, effectively his “translation” of his own life into literature, while the Indian romance is only a slightly re-ethnicized variation on the ancient Greek pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe: the two books—Apelle’s manuscript and the old Greek novel—coupled and produced this novel when, at this novel’s climax, they were confused and interleaved in the archive.
What can all this recursive Nabokovian metafiction mean? First of all, by elaborately retelling Daphnis and Chloe as if it were an enchanting magical-realist Native American historical novel, Treuer contests the idea that anyone can ever encounter cultural authenticity in a work of fiction, which is the product of the individual imagination interacting with literary tradition and not the product of collective racial essences. Individual imagination is important because without it we would all, but especially those who have been and are stereotyped, be unable to articulate our singular experiences of the world and sensibilities in perceiving and expressing them:
What language could he use for himself that had not become part of those stories about his people, the sad ones and the funny ones and the ones about the ways and days of the past. What could he say that would exist on its own, that represented only him and his life?
Treuer is moreover accusing a largely white or at least non-Indian readership and publishing industry of wishing to consign Native Americans to the genre of the pastoral, seeing them as forever wed to some simplistically redemptive idea of nature that is itself traditionally European. In this connection, Apelles reflects on what he sees as cultural pandering by other Indian writers: “The writers are only too glad to tell anecdotes or give the audience small cultural pearls.”
Above all, Treuer rejects the idea of culture as a past that imprisons the present, the Faulknerian Gothic mode (“the past is not even past”) that even more than pastoral has overwhelmingly influenced American writing about race in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, at least since Beloved (whose author mentored Treuer at Princeton). No, Treuer seems to say, an imaginative writer’s relationship to the past may be a voluntary and creative one, and if it is a Gothic one, well, that too is the free exercise of the aesthetic imagination: “So it wasn’t that his past haunts him. He haunts his past.”
But Treuer’s argument, like his Möbius strip of a novel, goes the other way too, as a vindication of any and all modes of fiction-making, so long as you do not confuse them with life: Dr. Apelles‘s use of Longus is a reminder that the novel is an older and more diverse form than we tend to realize when we imagine it is the product solely of the Protestant middle classes in the 18th century. Daphnis and Chloe comes out of the cross-cultural ferment of late antiquity in the eastern Mediterranean, a period denounced as decadently effeminate by Nietzsche, who scorned “Alexandrian man” as a mere proto-postmodern librarian rather than an originator of culture—something that Treuer, with his ambiguous archive of forgotten books, must have known.
The Translation of Dr. Apelles is on the whole an ingenious and intricately written philosophical fiction that I recommend. I could criticize it, of course. Like all novels with obviously set structures—this one alternates predictably from the romantic story to the realistic one—it begins to feel confining, and Treuer’s philosophizing becomes extravagantly explicit in the end. And like all fictions composed to illustrate ideas, the novel sometimes feels more clever than wise, more mechanical than alive, as its allegory develops; this flaw contradicts Treuer’s seemingly Nabokovian doctrine that fiction must be a matter of living detail rather than ideology. Treuer overcompensates for having over-intellectualized his book with a few direct authorial statements that seem to line up with a very 2000s-era New Sincerity; these are sentimental rather than affecting because they are insufficiently anchored to a narrative Treuer expects us, by the end, to believe in:
…the imagination can produce more than illusion…it does not matter whether the illusion is true or not because the imagination can create both pleasure and happiness, too. someday.
The novel’s flaws are negligible, though, because they do not really detract from its main interest, which is Treuer’s compelling argument and his admirably and amusingly various styles of developing it in narrative, as if conducting a master class in the possibilities of contemporary American prose.