Excerpted from The Translation of Dr. Apelles by David Treuer. Copyright © 2008 by David Treuer. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book? What attracted you to the idea of a document only one man can read?
A: The story (and the characters cursed/blessed to live it out) always comes first. In this case, Dr. Apelles-a special, unique, singular, rather quietly beautiful human being; terrified of the world, terrified of being “mis-known” and misunderstood-appeared as a person with a dilemma. Namely, how to let himself be known (as an individual and as a Native person) without sacrificing any part of his sovereign self and while dodging and ducking the stories that many (most?) people tell themselves about Indians. It seemed to him (and to me, his kindly father) that the best way to “become himself” was to dive into the very source of his problem: the romantic, lace-edged, valentine-hued, comforting, and often maudlin stories about his (and my) people. But in a way his problem is the problem that we all face. How do we let others know us? How do we tell our own stories that preserves our integrity and singularity to the people we want to love and who we want to love us? How do we all end up translating ourselves and with what languages?
Q: As a follow-up, do similar documents-ones written in languages dangerously close to being forgotten-exist in the real world? Why does language preservation matter?
A: The sad fact is: we will lose up to 90 percent of the linguistic diversity in the world over the next 100 years. We will all witness the extinction of nine out of ten languages in our lifetime. So if such documents don't exist now, just wait a few election cycles.
Q: People have called Translation an “edgy” love story, a postmodern, “Escher-esque” tale, a literary satire, and a cultural statement. How would you categorize the book, if you had to?
A: I would call it: “the book everyone told me I shouldn't write but I simply had to even though it doesn't try to fit any category as much as it tries to transcend them all.” I would call it: “a metaphysical valentine written by a book and dedicated to another, sitting like an old couple that can't stop touching one another on a bookshelf in a forgotten corner of the reader's own heart.”
Q: Do you identify particularly strongly with any of the characters in the book?
A: No. I am much more personable and social than Apelles, not as beautiful as Campaspe, not as handsome as Bimaadiz, and not as self-reliant as Eta. And they all have a lot more sex than I do in many more pastoral and public places.
Q: Why did you decide to tell two intertwined love stories? How do they relate to one another? What is to be gained from their coexistence and relationship? How do they inform each other?
A: They help each other out. Apelles manages to spring clear of the valentine that seeks to trap him (springing like a heart from a pop-up book), while, at the same time, his life is informed by that valentine. Bimaadiz and Eta's story is like a valentine: silly, ideal, a little purple around the edges, dented by the thumb in the supermarket of erotic romance, ready for picking. But, ultimately, Apelles and Compaspe have a more mature, “real world,” compelling, intricate, and soaring relationship than their bookish counterparts. But they all feed one another.
Q: You've drawn some fairly critical attention for your nonfiction book, Native American Fiction: A User's Manual. To what extent do you think Native American identity shapes your-or anyone else's-literary endeavors?
A: Well, charting the exact ratio of “identity” to “influence”-that is, the degree to which the author's identity matters and the degree to which the books we've read, the people we know, the schools we've attended, the jobs we've had, the TV shows we like, the tragedies (communal and individual) we've endured, the hearts we've broken, the times our own hearts have been bruised matters-seems kind of pointless after a certain point. Obviously one's personal identity (largely a fiction of our own making “drawn from life”) is hugely important . . . to the person. As for books, as for literary endeavors, well that's the strange magic of books, isn't it? They somehow exist inside us and outside us at the same time. They are of us, but they are always “of” other books, too. I think it would be tragic to only or even mostly interpret Hamlet as an expression of “English-ness” or of Shakespeare's identity as an “English man.” It would rob Hamlet of its magic and wouldn't help explain in any lasting way why the play is important and moving to many people. The same goes for Beloved. And The Magic Mountain. And A Boy's Own Story. And The English Patient. But this is exactly what happens more often than not to Native American stories. The result: “red-faced minstrelsy.” Speaking of the book I am working on now: it is as much a mixture of my self, my love, my ambition, my people, my tastes-running from Thomas Mann to Christina Aguilera and back again-and my devotion to my craft as anything I've ever written.
Q: Who are some of your greatest literary influences?
A: Svevo, Calvino, Borges, Nabokov, Saramago, Antunes, Queroz, Ondaatje, Morrison, Mann, Proust, Nabokov, Woolf, Swift, Longus, Voltaire, Poe, Marvell, Yeats, Muldoon, Pamuk, Mary McCarthy, Edmund White, Peter Carey, any writer who writes as all writers should: that is, ecstatically, all-encompassingly, completely, bravely, going for the whole thing, and not playing it safe
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was it a specific moment, or a gradual process?
A: Right now I can't remember wanting to be a writer. Right now I'd much rather be inside one of my books rather than at my desk writing one! I think I'll just slip between the covers . . .
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?