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The Translation of Dr. Apelles by David Treuer [Review]

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There are two stories in The Translation of Dr. Apelles. One is resolved traditionally, while the other ends in a bit of post-modern trickery. Both, however, end well. Author David Treuer even manages to tie the two stories together, though it seems impossible at first.

The novel hints right at the beginning that things will be non-traditional. A sentence begins on one page ("It was a time of") and ends as a chapter title several pages later ("war."), signaling that language and time may be stretched as things progress. In fact, Treuer settles down quickly to the stories at hand, and doesn't resurrect this technique until the last few pages.

Instead, we are plunged into the translated work, facing challenges of a different sort as we read of a mother's sacrifice in difficult times, as she tries to save her son. He is saved, improbably, by a moose. Adding to the unlikelihood is the next chapter, in which a young girl is saved, at least as improbably, by a wolf.

Since the book is billed as "a love story," we may suspect that the paths of these two will cross, and soon Bimaadiz (the foundling boy) and Eta (the foundling girl) do meet, though they are too young at the time to fall in love right away. In the meantime, we step back to examine the life of the translator of this story, Dr. Apelles, and the profound impact translating this story is having on him. Only later do we begin to understand the impact he is having on the story.

The author is Ojibwe, from the Leech Lake Reservation. This seems more important in the story of Dr. Apelles than it does the two young people, though it gives the entire novel authenticity on every page. The story of Bimaadiz and Eta includes a depiction of a traditional reservation lifestyle, and even features occasional untranslated words from native languages, but the story of Dr. Apelles is at once more familiar and more foreign, because it is set in our world, or one very much like it. I might have trouble relating to the hunting and trapping and tribal life, but I can grasp Dr. Apelles' struggle to find a place for himself outside of the reservation on which he was born.

There the struggles seem commonplace, though still tinged with cultural uniqueness. While Apelles is set in the fantastic environment of the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium (RECAP), the details of his existence are just right, even as the overarching description of the place is extremely odd. It is a credit to Treuer's skill as a writer that I could easily envision the "book prison" at which Dr. Apelles is employed.

The Translation weaves back and forth between the two stories, chapter by chapter, as the work of translating the story of Bimaadiz and Eta awakens Dr. Apelles to his own lack of romance. We follow him through his unusually lonely life, exploring his sudden longing, anticipating a developing relationship with… whom? Progress in Dr. Apelles' life is matched by progress in the burgeoning relationship between our young native lovers, and setbacks in one seem to result in setbacks in the other as well. The relationship between the two seems at first to be nothing more than a translator reacting strongly to what he is translating, but develops into a two-way tension as the book progresses.

David Treuer manages to create two different stories that are both engaging and unique. One could read the story of the young lovers without the "interruption" of Apelles' story, and be satisfied. I'm not sure one could say the same in reverse, because Apelles' story relies so heavily on knowledge of the other story, but it is engaging on its own merits. Creating one compelling story is a feat, but creating two is the work of a master. In The Translation of Dr. Apelles, David Treuer has created two stories — one fascinating and one simply wonderful — that make this romantic novel a masterwork.

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