Does a story exist if no one reads it? In this remarkable novel, a Native American scholar finds himself intertwined in two stories: an obscure manuscript he’s translating and his own neglected life.ReviewWhat becomes of an unread book? The US publishing industry alone produced 172,000 individual titles last year.
For its part, David Treuer’s third novel has an Amazon sales rank — not the most scientific of indicators, but a harbinger of a book’s commercial fate nonetheless— of 238,138, as of this writing.The anxiety of being unread lies at the heart of The Translation of Dr. Apelles, much of which takes place in a vast repository for forgotten books exiled from overflowing libraries. Dr. Apelles is a lonely bachelor, an Indian in a very white world, who catalogs the new arrivals so they can theoretically be retrieved should anyone wish to read them, though no one ever has. But Apelles is also a scholar and translator of Native American texts, who spends every other Friday in an archive of similarly unread stories, where he one day comes across a manuscript in a language that only he knows.
It is a love story, about two foundlings who grow to share one heart.The novel follows both Apelles’s translation and his own love story, with his beautiful co-worker at the repository, Campaspe. But love, like a good novel, is never simple, and Campaspe’s desire to know more of Apelles than he’s giving her results in her stealing his translation. What had been a novel about stories becomes a book about itself — metafiction of the most effective, and affecting, sort.
David Treuer is Ojibwe, and his recent collection of essays implores that readings of Native American literature focus on the literature itself rather than notions of identity and authenticity. Treuer writes about Indians, but the only tradition he’s concerned with is the literary one. The most appropriate reference points of this remarkable work are Borges, Calvino, and Classical myth; it paves the way for a new type of Great American Novel, one that doesn’t care about being “Native,” or even “American.” But will anyone read it?- Chris Parris-Lamb
Becoming Italian Back in December 2020, I started a new research project on Instagram, @ItalianAtAGlance to curate and share some …
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