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“Stunning. . . . 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 introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of The Translation of Dr. Apelles, the extraordinary new novel by David Treuer, author of Little and The Hiawatha.
Spanning the boundaries between past and present, Native American and Urban American culture, and inner and outer meaning, David Treuer's powerful new novel tells a love story that is ultimately about the act of reading itself.
As the novel begins, the life and fated love stories of a young boy and girl, Bimaadiz and Eta, introduce the rituals and meanings of tribal life. Both are foundlings. Without family, village, or any well-marked trail. Left by ancestors, each is nurtured by the natural world, then found and raised by loving families-strangers who become temporary guides on their journeys. But even within these kind, substitute families, Bimaadiz and Eta remain set apart, unique, selected for a special journey and path of learning.
At the same time as their story unfolds, the reader is also given glimpses of a very different life. A lonely translator of Algonquin languages, working in an archive of unwanted and unread books (the perfect setting for his own unread life), experiences a moment of epiphany in which he recognizes the meaning of a text that only he can read. He understands for the first time, now at the age of forty-three, that he has never before been in love. His regular and orderly life is disrupted by the knowledge, breaking into his long-held reserve and innocence, that he must learn to “read” and translate the world and himself in a completely new way. He must leave his safe, mundane home and go on an adventure full of excitement, uncertainty, and risk. It is as if, holding this unsuspected new text and opening the first page of a new kind of knowledge, he takes his own life in his hands.
Treuer spins two love stories at the same time, each enhancing and mirroring the other, and bound together in a kind of rapture over the power of reading and being read in ordinary human lives. The common thread that runs through all of the interlocking themes in The Translation of Dr. Apelles is a profound insistence on the necessity of beauty. And as Treuer says in the “Translator's Introduction” which opens the novel, “It is sometimes surprising where you find it.” This is a timeless, human lesson, but Treuer's gift is to bring such beauty into the contemporary world in a way that offers a rare mixture of imaginative complexity, emotional depth, and a self-reflexive awareness of the power of telling stories.
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 his people . . .” [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?
Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven; Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions; Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler; Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch; Louise Erdrich, Tracks; Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire.
David Treuer is the Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Canada, a Pushcart Prize, the 1996 Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the Penn West Prize in 1999. The Translation of Dr. Apelles is his third novel. He divides his time between his home on the Leech Lake Reservation and Minneapolis.